Vasic stared at his partner, Aden’s words making no sense. “We don’t have a public profile, and if we did, you’re the best one to take that position.”

“The decision is now out of our hands.” Taking a thin datapad from his pocket, he passed it to Vasic just as Ivy returned to them.

She leaned against his side to look at the screen, her cheeks glowing and a panting Rabbit resting at her feet. Every inch of Vasic’s body was sensitized to her presence, her warmth seeping into his cells to ease the ice-cold places inside him, the soft curve of her breast pressed against his upper arm. With any other woman, it would’ve been an intrusion. With Ivy, it felt natural . . . normal.

Shifting his arm, he wrapped it around her shoulders.

“That’s an incredible photo.”

He followed the copper and gold of her gaze to see that the image on the datapad was of him. He had a baby cradled against his chest and a hand shoved out behind him as he held off two of the infected armed with broken glass bottles. Blood dripped from his temple where he’d taken a hit at some point, and his T-shirt was torn, the gauntlet visible because he’d taken off his jacket to wrap the infant in it, having caught her as she was thrown off a third-story balcony in an act of insane violence.

“What do you see when you see that photo?” Aden asked, his question directed at Ivy.

“Vasic being the strong, extraordinary man he is.” She rose on tiptoe, and Vasic angled his head down. Her lips brushed over his jaw.

Aden took in the interaction, wondered if his partner had any comprehension of just how far he’d come. “If you didn’t feel positive emotions toward him already,” he said to the woman who was Vasic’s, “what would you see?”

Ivy focused on the image again, frowned. “I’d see the same. A strong man protecting the vulnerable.”

“That is what the wider population sees as well.” Tapping the datapad, he brought up the hereto hidden headline: “A Silent Hero.”

There was more, the feature article illustrated not only with that first image, but with several others of Vasic taken during the recent outbreaks—as well as a photograph from when he’d rendered assistance after a bomb blast masterminded by Pure Psy in Copenhagen and another from the group’s attack in Geneva.

Vasic was wearing his Arrow uniform in both those photos.

“The media has connected you to the squad,” Aden said, “and by doing that, they’ve given the squad a face, a name.”

“We don’t play for the media, Aden. Even if that’s to change, I’m the last person you should put in that position.”

Ivy spread her hand on Vasic’s chest, her smile rueful. “I adore him,” she said to Aden, “but he’s right. Vasic’s not exactly the chatty media type.” Her eyes danced. “In fact, I’m not sure he knows how to chat at all.”

Vasic squeezed her. “I’m going to find a manual.”

Bursting out in laughter at what seemed a reasonable statement to Aden, Ivy tried to speak, gave up. “Sorry,” she said almost a minute later, her voice still tremulous with laughter and inexplicable tears rolling down her face. “Your partner has a sly sense of humor.”

I didn’t know you had a sense of humor.

I appear to be growing one. Vasic shifted back to vocal speech after using his thumb to wipe away Ivy’s tears. “The media. Why?”

“We need to adapt,” Aden said in an echo of the promise the entire squad had made when Silence was about to fall.

To adapt. To survive.

“The squad has always been a shadow in the Net,” he continued, “the whip used to terrify the population. Right now, people are in shock, but sooner or later, if we survive this infection, things will come to an equilibrium.” Aden met eyes of copper ringed with gold, then those of cool gray. “When that happens, people will seek someone to blame.” The psychology of it was clear-cut. “We’re a big target.”

“No one can touch us,” Vasic replied.

“No, but they can touch those who are our own.” Aden looked deliberately at Ivy.

Chapter 54

“IF ANYONE IN the squad intends to have a life beyond Silence, we need to rehabilitate”—Aden paused, conscious of the incongruity of using that word—“the perception seeded into the minds of the population that we’re murderers and assassins. That might be true, but it isn’t going to be useful going forward.”

Ivy’s eyebrows drew together. “Don’t call the squad that,” she said, her voice fierce. “Don’t say it about yourself, either.”

Aden held Ivy’s gaze. “We’re killers, Ivy. That can’t be altered.”

Aden. Vasic shook his head very slightly. Don’t remind her of something she appears to have forgotten.

But it was too late, Ivy stepping forward to face Aden. “You were assassins, black ops, whatever you want to call it. You took orders. And yes, you should take responsibility for your actions, but you were also drafted as children and programmed to take those orders, do those acts.” Voice low and intense, she continued before he could interrupt. “That gives you the right to cut yourselves some slack. You’re trying to change things now—you’ve put your lives on the line again and again and again to help the defenseless.”

“At what point,” Aden said, “is that enough to erase the past?”

“Never,” Ivy said softly. “We all have to live with our past, but it doesn’t have to define us.” She shoved a hand through her hair, her loose ponytail unraveling to leave her face haloed in curls. “What you’re doing now that you’ve broken the chains? Those are the real choices, the ones that will define you.” Copyright 2016 - 2023