When Zsadist came awake, his first instinct was to sit up. Bad fucking idea. His shoulder let out a holler and nailed him with a shot of pain so intense, he blacked out again.
This time when he woke up at least he remembered what not to do. He turned his head slowly instead of trying to get vertical. Where the hell was he? The place seemed halfway between a guest bedroom and a hospital setup—Havers. He was at Havers's clinic.
And someone was sitting in the shadows across the unfamiliar room.
"Bella?" he croaked.
"Sorry." Butch leaned forward, into the light. "Just me."
"Where is she?" Man, he was hoarse. "Is she all right?"
"Where… where is she?"
"She's… ah, she's leaving town, Z. Actually I think she's already gone."
Zsadist closed his eyes. Considered briefly the merits of passing out again.
He couldn't blame her for getting away, though. Christ, the situations she'd been put in. Not the least of which was killing that lesser. It was better that she get far away from Caldwell.
Although he ached all over from the loss.
He cleared his throat. "Phury? Is he—"
"Right next door. Bunged up, but okay. The two of you have been out to lunch for a couple of days."
"No one has any idea where he is. It's like he vanished." The cop blew out his breath. "John's supposed to be staying at the mansion, but we can't get him out of the training center. He's been sleeping in Tohr's office. Any other updates you want?" As Z shook his head, the cop got to his feet. "I'll leave you alone now. I just assumed you'd feel better knowing where things stood."
The cop's eyes flared at the sound of his name, making Z realize he'd never used it with the guy before.
"Sure," the human said. "No problem."
As the door eased shut, Zsadist sat up. While his head spun he yanked the monitors off his chest and his forefinger. Alarms started to go off, and he silenced them by pushing over the stand of machinery that was next to the bed. The tangle of monitors unplugged itself on the way to the floor and shut up.
He yanked the catheter out with a grimace and looked at the IV going into his forearm. He was about to rip it from his vein, but then figured chilling on that move might be smart. God only knew what was pumping into him. Maybe he needed it.
He stood up and his body felt like a beanbag, all loose inside his skin. The IV pole made a good walker, though, so he hit the hallway. As he started for the room beside his, nurses came running from all directions. He shrugged them off and pushed open the first door he got to.
Phury was lying on the king-size bed, lines plugged into him as if he were a switchboard.
The male's head turned. "Z… what are you doing up?"
"Giving the medical staff a workout." He shut the door and weaved into the room, heading for the bed. "They're pretty damn fast, actually."
"You shouldn't be—"
"Shut up and move over."
Phury looked startled as hell, but he pushed himself to the far side as Z heaved his exhausted body up onto the mattress. When he lay back against the pillows, the two of them let out identical sighs.
Z rubbed his eyes. "You're ugly without all that hair, you know."
"That mean you're going to grow some?"
"Nah. My beauty-queen days are over."
Phury chuckled. Then there was a long silence.
In the quiet, Zsadist kept picturing what it had been like to go into that lesser's shed and see Phury strapped to that table, his hair gone, his face beat to shit. Having to witness his twin's pain had been… an agony.
Z cleared his throat. "I shouldn't have used you like I did."
The bed wiggled as if Phury had jerked his head around. "What?"
"When I wanted to… hurt. I shouldn't have made you beat me."
There was no reply, and Z turned for a look, watching as Phury covered his eyes with his hands.
"That was cruel of me," Z said into the dim, tense air between them.
"I hated doing that to you."
"I know, and I knew it when I made you hit me until I bled. That I fed off your misery was the crudest part. I'm never going to ask you to do that again."
Phury's bare chest rose and fell. "I'd rather it be me than anyone else. So when you need it, you let me know. I'll do it."
"What? It's the only way you'll let me take care of you. The only way you'll let me touch you."
Now Z was the one covering stinging eyes with a forearm. He had to cough a couple of times before speaking. "Look, no more saving me, my brother, okay? That's over now. Finished. It's time for you to let go."
There was no reply. So Z glanced over again—just as a tear slid down Phury's cheek.
"Ah… fuck," Z muttered.
"Yeah. Pretty much." Another tear rolled out of Phury's eye. "God… damn. I'm leaking."
"Okay, brace yourself."
Phury scrubbed his face with his palms. "Why?"
"Because… I think I'm going to try to hug you."
Phury's hands dropped and he looked over with an absurd expression.
Feeling like an utter ass, Z pushed himself over to his twin. "Lift up your head, damn it." Phury craned his neck. Z slid his arm underneath. The two of them froze in the unnatural positions. "You know, this was a hell of a lot easier when you were out cold in the back of that truck."
"That was you?"
"You think it was Santa Claus or some shit?"
Z's hackles were rising all over the place. God… He was really exposed here. What the hell was he doing?
"I thought you were an angel," Phury said softly as he laid his head back onto Z's arm. "When you sang to me, I thought you were seeing me safely unto the Fade."
"I'm no angel." He reached up and smoothed his hand over Phury's cheek, sweeping the wetness away. Then he closed the male's eyelids with his fingertips.
"I'm tired," Phury murmured. "So… tired."
Z stared at his twin's face for what felt like the very first time. The bruises were already healing, the swelling going down, the jagged cut he'd given himself fading. What was revealed were lines of exhaustion and strain, not much of an improvement.
"You've been tired for centuries, Phury. It's time to let go of me."
"Don't think I can."
Zsadist inhaled deeply. "That night I was taken from the family… No, don't look at me. It's too… close. I can't breathe when you do… Christ, just close your eyes, okay?" Z coughed some more, little chuffing sounds that were the only reason he could speak through his tight throat. "That night, it wasn't your fault you didn't get snatched. And you can't make up for the fact that you were lucky and I wasn't. I want you to stop looking after me."
Phury's breath shuddered out of him. "Do you… do you have any idea what it felt like to see you in that cell, naked and chained and… to know what that female had done to you for so long?"
"I know it all, Z. I know everything that happened to you. I heard about it from males who… had been there. Before I knew it was you that they spoke of, I heard the stories."
Zsadist swallowed, though he'd gone queasy. "I had always hoped that you didn't know. Had prayed that you—"
"So you've got to understand why I die for you every day. Your pain is mine."
"No, it isn't. Swear to me you will stop this."
Z closed his eyes. As they lay together, he wanted to beg for forgiveness for all the shitty things he'd done since Phury had gotten him free… and he wanted to yell at his twin for being such a damn hero. But mostly he wanted to give all those wasted years back to Phury. The male deserved so much more than he had gotten out of life.
"Well, you're giving me no alternative, then."
Phury's head jerked off Z's arm. "If you kill yourself—"
"I guess I'd better take a stab at not giving you as much to worry about."
Z felt Phury's whole body go limp. "Oh… Jesus."
"Don't know how it'll work out, though. My instincts… they've been honed for anger, you know. I'm probably always going to be a quick trigger."
"But you know, maybe I could work on that. Or something. Fuck, I don't know. Probably not."
"Oh… Jesus. I'll help you. Any way I can."
Z shook his head. "No. I don't want help. I need to do this myself."
They were quiet for a time. "My arm's falling asleep," Z said. Phury lifted his head and Zsadist took the limb back, but he didn't move away.
Right before Bella left, she went to the room Zsadist had been given. She'd been delaying her departure for days, telling herself it wasn't because she was waiting for him to come around. Which was a lie.
The door was slightly ajar, so she knocked on the jamb. She wondered what he would say when she just walked right in. Probably nothing.
"Come in," a female said.
Bella stepped into the room. The bed was empty, and a splintered tree of monitoring equipment was lying on its side as if it were dead. A nurse was picking pieces of it off the floor and putting them into a trash can. Clearly Zsadist was up and around.
The nurse smiled. "Are you looking for him? He's next door with his brother."
Bella went one room farther down and knocked quietly. When there was no response, she went inside.
The two of them were lying back-to-back, so tightly against each other it was as if their spines were fused. Their arms and legs were curled up in identical positions, their chins tucked into their chests. She imagined them in their mother's womb like that, resting together, innocent of all the horrors that waited for them on the outside.
Odd to think her blood was in both of them. It was her only legacy to the pair, the only thing she was leaving behind.
Without warning Zsadist's eyes flipped open. The yellow-gold glow was such a surprise, she jumped.
"Bella…" He reached for her. "Bella—"
She took a step back. "I came to say good-bye."
As he dropped his hand, she had to look away.
"Where are you going?" he asked. "Somewhere safe?"
"Yes." She was heading down the coast, to Charleston in South Carolina, to extended family who were more than happy to take her in. "It's going to be a new start for me. A new life."
"Good. This is good."
She closed her eyes. Just once… just once she would have liked to hear some regret in his voice while she was leaving. Then again, as this was their last good-bye, at least she wouldn't have to be disappointed anymore.
"You were so brave," he said. "I owe you my life. His, too. You are so… brave."
The hell she was. She was about to break down completely. "I hope you and Phury heal up fast. Yeah, I hope…"
There was a long silence. Then she took one last look at Zsadist's face. She knew then that even if she mated somewhere down the line, no male would ever take his place.
And as unromantic as it sounded, that just plain sucked. Sure, she was supposed to triumph over loss and all that. But she loved him and she wasn't going to end up with him, and all she wanted to do was get in a bed somewhere, turn the lights off, and just lie there. For, like, a century.
"I need you to know something," she said. "You told me that someday I would wake up and regret being with you. Well, I do. But not because of what the glymera would say." She crossed her arms over her chest. "After having been burned by high society once, I'm no longer afraid of the aristocracy, and I would have been proud… to stand at your side. But yes, I am sorry I was with you."
Because leaving him was a shattering blow. Worse than everything she'd gone through with the lesser.
All things considered, it would have been better not to know what she was missing.
Without another word she turned and left the room.
As dawn creeped over the landscape, Butch walked into the Pit, took off his coat, and sat down on the leather sofa. SportsCenter was on mute. Kanye West's Late Registration was on surround sound.
V appeared in the kitchen's doorway, clearly just in from a night of fighting: He was shirtless and sporting a shiner, still in his leathers and shitkickers.
"How you doing?" Butch asked, eyeing another black-and-blue that was popping up on his roommate's shoulder.
"No better than you. You look beat, cop."
"For real." He let his head fall back. Watching over Z had seemed like the thing to do while the other Brothers had been out doing their job. But he was exhausted, even though all he'd done was park it in a chair for three days straight.
"I've got something to perk you up. Here."
Butch shook his head as a wineglass appeared in front of his face. "You know I don't drink red."
"Nah, I need a shower and then something with a little more bite in it." Butch planted his hands into his knees and started to get up.
Vishous stepped in the way. "You need this. Trust me."
Butch let his ass sink back down as he took the glass. He sniffed at the wine. Drank some. "Not bad. Little thick, but not bad. Is this a merlot?"
He tilted his head back and swallowed seriously. The wine was strong, burning its way to his stomach, making him a little light-headed. Which made him wonder when the last time he'd eaten had been.
As he sucked back the last inch, he frowned. Vishous was watching him far too closely.
"V? Something wrong?" He put the glass on a table and cocked an eyebrow.
"No… no, everything's cool. Everything's going to be cool now."
Butch thought about his roommate's troubles of late. "Hey, I meant to ask about your visions. They still gone?"
"Well, I had one about ten minutes ago. So maybe they're back."
"That'd be good. I don't like to see you all freaked out."
"You're all right, cop. You know that?" Vishous smiled and pushed a hand through his hair. As his arm dropped, Butch caught sight of the Brother's wrist. On the inside of it there was a fresh red cut. Like, one that had been made minutes ago.
Butch looked at the wineglass. A horrible suspicion carried his eyes to his roommate's drinking point again.
"Jesus… Christ. V, what… what did you do?" He shot to his feet just as the first spasm overtook his stomach. "Oh, God… Vishous."
He ran for his toilet to throw up, but he didn't make it that far. As soon as he flew into his room V tackled him from behind, taking him down onto the bed. When he started to gag, Vishous flipped him over onto his back and pushed the heel of his hand up against Butch's chin, keeping his mouth shut.
"Don't fight it," V said roughly. "Keep it down. You need to keep it down."
Butch's gut heaved and he choked on the shit that shot up into his throat. Panicked, nauseated, unable to breathe, he shoved against the heavy body that straddled him and managed to knock Vishous off to the side. But before he could get free, V grabbed him from behind and forced his jaw shut again.
"Keep… it… down…" V groaned as they straggled on the bed.
Butch felt a thick leg come around and trap his thighs. The wrestling move worked. He couldn't move. He fought anyway.
The spasms and the nausea intensified until he thought his eyes were going to burst. Then there was an explosion in his gut, and sparks started flowing throughout his body… sparks that lit off a tingling… now a hum. He fell still, the fight going out of him as he absorbed the sensations.
V's hold eased up and he took his hand away, though he kept an arm around Butch's chest. "That's right… Just breathe through it. You're doing fine."
The hum was rising now, turning into something like sex, but not really… No, it definitely wasn't anything erotic, but his body didn't know the difference. He hardened, the erection pushing against his slacks, his body suddenly raging with heat. He arched back, a moan coming out of his mouth.
"That's right," V said into his ear. "Don't fight it. Let it wash through you."
Butch's hips swiveled of their own accord, and he moaned again. He was hot as the center of the sun, his skin hypersensitive, his vision gone… And then the roaring in his gut shifted up to his heart. In a flash all his veins lit up like they had gasoline in them, the whole inside of him becoming a network of fire, growing hotter and hotter. Sweat poured off him as his body gyrated and jerked, and he threw his head back against Vishous's shoulder. Hoarse sounds broke out of his mouth.
"I'm… going… to die."
V's voice was right there with him, seeing him through. "You gotta stay with me, my man. Keep breathing. This isn't going to last long."
Just when Butch thought he couldn't handle any more of the inferno, an eighteen-wheeler orgasm overtook him. As the top of his cock blew off, Vishous held him through the convulsions, speaking in the Old Language. And then it was over. A storm passed.
Panting, weak, Butch shuddered in the aftermath as V eased off the bed and covered him with a blanket.
"Why…" Butch said like a drunk. "Why, V?"
Vishous's face appeared in front of his. Both of the Brother's diamond eyes glowed… until the left one suddenly went all black, the pupil expanding until the iris and the white part became nothing but an infinite hole.
"The why of it… I don't know. But I saw that you were to drink from me. It was either that or you were going into the ground." V reached out and smoothed Butch's hair back. "Sleep. You'll feel fine by nightfall because you lived through it."
"That could have… killed me?" Well, shit, yeah. He'd assumed he was going to die.
"I wouldn't have given it to you if I weren't sure you'd make it. Close your eyes, now. Let yourself go, true?" Vishous headed out, but paused in the doorway.
As the Brother looked back, Butch felt the oddest sensation… a bond flowing between them, something more tangible than the air between their bodies. Forged in the oven he'd just been in, deep as the blood in his veins… a miracle connection.
My brother, Butch thought.
"I'm not going to let anything happen to you, cop."
And Butch knew that was absolutely true, though he really didn't appreciate being blindsided. Then again, if he'd known what was in that glass, he never would have swallowed the shit. No frickin' way.
"What does this make me?" he asked softly.
"Nothing that you weren't before. You're still just a human."
Butch sighed in relief. "Listen, man, do me a favor. Warn me before you pull another stunt like that. I'd rather choose." Then he smiled a little. "And we still ain't dating."
V laughed in a short burst. "Go to sleep, roomie. You can kick my ass for this later."
As the Brother's broad back disappeared down the hail, Butch closed his eyes.
Still just a human… Just… a… human.
Sleep claimed him like a prize.