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“Wait, didn’t Humpty Dumpty fall and break? I think the metaphor you’re shooting for is more along the lines of Elmer’s glue? Duct tape?”

Dr. Manello smiled and pointed at the IV bag. “Do you have annnnnnnny idea the kind of shit I can put in your bag?”

“That sounds dirty. And I like females recently, so you’re not my type.”

The surgeon was laughing as he headed for the door. “Gimme ten minutes to get organized. Ehlena will be here to unplug you—and if you touch that line into your vein? I’m not letting you go. We do this right, on my terms, clear?”

“Clear.”

Just as the human opened the door, Axe said gruffly, “Can I see Rhage. You know, before I leave.”

Dr. Manello looked over his shoulder. “Yeah, he’s been asking for you. And you can take your time in there—you’re going in in a wheelchair. Oh, and shut the fuck up with the complaining on that, will you.”

“I haven’t bitched about it.”

“Yet.”

As the door eased shut, Axe thought, Well, at least the guy seemed to get him.

And what do you know, after he was “unplugged” and had shifted his bare feet to the floor, standing up turned out to be reallllllly tricky.

Turned out that surgeon had had a point about him not being able to go far.

Ehlena, his nurse, was patient as he grunted and shifted himself from the bed down to the wheelchair, and then she pushed him two doors closer to the exit and knocked.

“Come in,” a female voice said.

The nurse opened things up and Axe rolled himself in. The tableau over at the hospital bed was totally Norman Rockwell, Rhage on his back looking like death warmed over, his loving shellan and his dark-haired daughter by his side.

And it was funny, even though Axe didn’t believe in the nuclear anything, unless it was a bomb … the three of them together made him a little sentimental. After all, it was the kind of thing anyone would want—because he could tell the family was close, Rhage holding the little girl’s hand, and Mary, who Axe had met in passing once or twice, with her arm around their daughter.

“Don’t mean to interrupt private time,” Axe muttered.

“No”—Rhage motioned forward—“come here.…”

Axe wheeled over as close as he could and thought, Fuck it. He put the brake on, struggled to get out of the chair, and used the handrails of the bed to hold himself up.

Wow. Nauseous.

“Thank you, son,” Rhage said hoarsely. “You saved my life.”

Man, those eyes were so blue, they almost looked fake. And they shone with tears unshed.

“Nah, it’s good. I’m just glad, you know.…” Fuck, wait, what the hell, was he tearing up, too? “Look, I got to go—”

Rhage caught his arm in a shockingly tight grip, and repeated, “Thank you. For saving my life. And do us both a favor and don’t try to pretend you didn’t. You’re the only reason I’m alive right now.”

Axe just stood there like a planker. He had no idea what the hell to do.

Mary broke the silence, speaking up from the other side, her voice wavering. “I don’t know how to repay you.”

“Nothing. I don’t want anything, ma’am.” Axe looked up, way up, in an attempt to create more surface area for his welling eyeballs. “I better go. I’m going home.”

“They’re releasing you?” Rhage asked. “No offense, son, but you don’t look well enough to be breathing on your own, much less going home unsupervised.”

“I’ll be fine.”

The Brother laughed. “You sound just like one of us.”

There was another moment of quiet, during which Axe desperately tried to keep from leaking.

“Come here, son.”

Rhage grunted as he sat up, and for some stupid, insane, inane reason … Axe leaned down with a groan. As the two embraced, Axe heard himself say, “What if I hadn’t gotten there on time? That’s what I … that’s what I keep replaying in my head.”

“But you did.”

“What if I hadn’t, though? You’d have died and it would have been my fault.”

Rhage let go and collapsed back against the raised half of the bed. “No, it would have been mine. We’ll go into it later, but trust me, as someone who knows that pattern of thought well? It’s the definition of stupidity to beat yourself up over something that fate decided was going to happen or not.”

“Yeah.”

“You know,” the Brother exhaled roughly, “I’d like to tell you war gets easier. It doesn’t. But you do get used to how awful it is. That much I can promise you. And hey, check it. You’re starting out on a win. Better than having your ass—” He glanced in the direction of his daughter. “You know. With a broomstick. Plunger. Hockey stick. Tent pole. Tent pole. Tent pole.”

Axe laughed and eased back down into the wheelchair … which was both a relief and as painful as Rhage’s pain-in-the-ass point—literally.

And damn it, you’d think his thigh would appreciate not having to carry any weight? Why was it doing that heartbeat thing again?

“No class tomorrow night,” Rhage said.

“Yeah, listen, is it true no one else got hurt, just you and me?”

“There were some other brief engagements, but no one saw real action. The other slayers just ran off? It was as if they were afraid of getting sent home. I think the Omega’s in some kind of flux. I don’t know.”

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