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“I am so sorry for your loss.”

Elise rubbed her aching head. “I appreciate that. Listen, Troy, I don’t mean to be rude but—”

“It is a totally different culture for you, then.”

“You have no idea,” she muttered as she bared her fangs at the mirror. “Completely different.”

“So what are you going to do? I mean, are you going to come back at all? And I’m not just asking because you’re my T.A. Is there anything I can do to help? Maybe I can talk to him—”

“No, no. Honestly, that would be …” If her father knew she was actively associating with a human? Maybe thinking of dating him? Chains in the basement. “I don’t know. Right now, it’s not looking good for me.”

The problem with figuratively dying in the middle of a training exercise? At the end of the session, you got to experience literal death.

Or as close to it as you could come while still having a damn heartbeat.

Axe let out a groan as he lay flat with his legs raised and held off the floor of an abandoned rooming house. Next to him, Novo was in the same pose, back against the cold concrete, legs extended out with heels six inches off the floor, palms down and by the hips. Every muscle, in both of them, was shaking, to the point where Axe’s teeth were knocking together and sweat was pouring off his face.

At least they weren’t the only ones getting schooled.

Everyone had gotten “killed,” even Craeg.

The Brother Rhage swung his flashlight away from Axe and Novo, the beam falling over to where Paradise and Peyton were doing push-ups, Marine-style … before moving farther on to Boone and Craeg, who were rocking sit-ups.

When it came to stuff like this, the rule was, you went to exhaustion, and no one wanted to no más first. Even as Axe’s body was in a full-on fist of pain, he set his brain free, taking himself back to The Keys, to the scaffolding, to that human female and the audience. He embedded his memory in the particulars, the feel of her under his hands, the taste of her mouth, the driving thrusts of the sex. There was nothing emotional in it; if his last experience before coming to class had been rotating tires on a car, he would have been thinking about wrenches, radials, and hubcaps.

He remembered everything he could and—

The blinding light of Rhage’s torch splashed into Axe’s face like acid. “Bkdw nbh, koy dwn skfg.”

Axe tried to squeeze out a What? but it was like forcing a city bus through a keyhole.

Rhage bent down and spoke slowly. “You can stop, son. You’re finished. Everyone else has quit.”

It was like releasing a rubber band after you pulled the thing tight. His body let go with a corporeal snap!, all parts of him hitting the floor, the back of his skull included. As pain red-lit his brain, he didn’t have the strength to tell his lungs to get pumping. They were either going to or not, and he didn’t particularly care one way or another what the result was.

In his mind, he had a passing thought that that was not normal. Not healthy. Not right.

But it was not the first time he’d had such a blasé attitude to his own life and death.

Conversation happened above him, Vishous and Rhage talking at the rest of the class, but Axe was too busy with the re-oxygenation process to follow any of it.

When he finally sat up, he found that it was only trainees in the tenement. The Brothers had left.

A lighter flared, and Peyton’s face got washed with orange illumination as he lit up a cigarette. “It’s one a.m. We need food and a drink. This was a cluster-fuck tonight.”

Muttering. Cursing. And then Craeg stuck out a hand to Axe to help him to his feet.

“You coming with us?” the guy said.

“Yeah,” Axe heard himself reply. “What the hell.”

He was tired, he was hungry, and he was poor—and whenever they went out, Peyton insisted on putting the bill on his AmEx. Good enough equation for Axe, especially as this way, he didn’t have to admit to anyone that he survived on ramen noodles when he wasn’t eating in the training center’s break room.

“Come on,” Craeg said at his elbow. “There’s always tomorrow night.”

“I want to fight now,” Axe muttered.

“Hell, yeah. This sucked.”

Click, you’re dead.

At this rate, the Brotherhood wasn’t going to let them engage the enemy for months. Maybe years.

Back out in the alley, nobody was talking much, that refrain clearly playing in other people’s heads. At least the cold air felt good, and shit, the snow was really coming down now, the fall so thick the stuff was making it to the ground even in the alleys.

As they headed over to Commerce Street, Axe replayed the cluster-fuck over and over again, imaging himself with his guns out already, better prepared for the ambush, more ready to fight. Next thing he knew, Peyton’s favorite after-training haunt had somehow materialized in front of him.

The cigar bar was as pretentious as it sounded, the interior done in English Country Estate with all kinds of leather armchairs and a lot of dark, heavy coffee tables and stools. There were no TV screens, though, no human sports flickering in the corners, and the food was good—not that his noodles were much of a standard. The main negative? The human clientele were such arrogant assholes with their Mercedes and their Range Rovers getting valet-parked, and their women-as-accessories girlfriends, but at least the dipshits were so self-absorbed that they couldn’t care less about the vampires who mixed in with them.

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