Shoving both hands through his hair, he continued. “I can remove the majority of the gauntlet myself. I might not be able to do the neurosurgery, but I understand biofusion in a way no one else does. I’ll need to make split-second decisions, and the surgeon must obey.”
It took a terrifyingly short time to accommodate his requirements. Edgard Bashir was brought in as the surgeon, rather than the surgeon originally scheduled to operate on Vasic. “She won’t follow instructions,” Vasic said when he made the decision. “That makes her an asset as a solo operator, but for a team, Edgard is the better player.”
Ivy wasn’t so sure she wanted the man who’d originally grafted the device to Vasic working on him, but holding her close, Vasic assured her that Edgard was an excellent neurosurgeon. “He just isn’t creative, and he doesn’t need to be with Samuel in the room. All he has to do is have steady hands.”
The operation was to take place in a secure Arrow medical facility that Samuel Rain and Dr. Bashir, plus two theatre nurses, were teleported to so they could have no knowledge of its location. Vasic ’ported in Ivy himself, with Abbot standing by to bring in anyone else who was needed while he was down.
Zie Zen chose to wait with Ivy’s parents at their cabin. “I will speak to you when the gauntlet has been removed,” he said to Vasic over the comm, but though his face was serene, his hand was bone white on his cane.
Then it was time. “I’ll be back soon, Ivy.”
Ivy held Vasic’s promise to her heart as she sat outside the operating room. Aden sat with her, his combat uniform reminding her piercingly of a thousand moments with her Arrow. When she closed her hand over Aden’s, he didn’t protest, curling his fingers around her own. Two hours passed before he stood and made her get up, too, to stretch her legs. When he tried to give her an energy drink, she waved it off.
He didn’t move. “Vasic trusted me to watch over you. I won’t let him down.”
“Stubborn, high-handed, both of you,” she muttered, while her heart bruised with every beat.
Aden held out the drink again.
Taking the bottle, she forced herself to finish it before returning to her vigil. This time Aden stood against the wall across from her, and though he was as remote as Vasic had once been, she didn’t feel alone. They were family, tied together by their love for the loyal, courageous, wonderful man beyond the doors to the operating room.
“Do you think we can ask for an update?” Her throat was scratchy from disuse as she looked up at Aden. “No, we shouldn’t interrupt,” she said before he could respond.
Aden sat down beside her again. “Would you like to hear the story of the first time I met Vasic?”
He was trying to comfort her, she realized, to get her mind off the painfully circular path in which it had been running for hours. “Yes.”
Leaning forward with his forearms braced on his thighs, Aden looked at the wall in front of them, but his stare wasn’t blank. It was as if he was watching a stream of memory. “I was seven years old and a very well-behaved child.”
There was something about the wording of his statement that made Ivy frown.
“Vasic, only a year older than me, was considered a problem. Those in charge of the squad at the time had no intention of releasing him—he was too valuable. So they had to find a way to break him down.”
Ivy’s nails cut into her palms. “He never broke.”
“No,” Aden said. “I think he believed for a long time that he had broken, but they never managed to destroy the core of who he is. It’s why he carries such guilt for actions he couldn’t have fought, consequences he could’ve never changed.”
“He’s built to protect, to shield, and they made him a killer.”
“Yes.” Aden continued to look into the past. “Even as they tried to break him, they had to teach him. Brute strength is never enough to make a man an Arrow. All of us train with sparring partners when young—mental and physical. However, in most cases, they’re rotated. The reason given to us at the time was that it was to ensure we could all work together, but I believe it was also so bonds couldn’t form between long-term partners.”
Encouraged by his earlier acceptance of her touch and wanting to comfort him as he was trying to do her, she put a careful hand on his shoulder. He didn’t shake it off, but neither did he react. “Vasic, however,” he continued, “was such a problem that he kept destabilizing his psychic sparring partners. They’d work him against another child, and even if that child had been in a relatively calm state previously, he or she would be erratic afterward.”
“Why not adults?”
“That was to be the last-case scenario. It’s harder for a child to spar against an adult, because an adult always has to hold back in case they cause harm, and so the balance isn’t natural and it impacts speed, accuracy, everything.” His lashes came down, flicked back up. They were black like Vasic’s, but unexpectedly long and with a curl at the ends.
He was handsome, she realized in a startled way. With sharp cheekbones and dark eyes against olive colored skin, he no doubt caught female attention. Only Ivy was always too focused on Vasic to notice.
“Finally,” he said, as her need for Vasic keened again, “they decided to try me. I was the last choice, because I was considered the weakest child in training at the time.”
Ivy knew beyond any doubt that there was nothing weak about Aden.