“Some men are not meant for peace, for calm. Some men are built for war.” Zie Zen’s eyes pierced hers. “He’s far stronger than he knows, able to fight with unrelenting fury for that in which he believes.”

“I know.” Even when Vasic had thought himself irreparably broken, he’d fought for his squad. “But he’s walked that road most of his life. Don’t you think he’s done enough?” she pleaded, aware just how much Vasic respected his great-grandfather. “Or do you believe he must be stripped down to the bone?”

Zie Zen leaned back in his chair, hand flexing on the head of the cane. “If I say I believe he needs to fight on? If I ask him to shed more blood, walk once more in the darkness?”

Ivy’s heart thudded, her own blood hot. “I won’t allow anyone to hurt him, not even you.” Never did she want to take this relationship from Vasic, but neither would she permit Zie Zen to use that relationship to destroy Vasic.

The elder’s eyes met hers again, an odd light in them. “So, he’s found a woman who will fight for him. Good.” With that, he returned his gaze to the lake and to the two men who stood there. “Do you know what I would like to see before I die, Ivy Jane?”

Ivy shook her head, still stunned at the realization that it had all been a test. “What, Grandfather?”

“I would like to see my son laugh.”

Ivy saw Vasic bend down to pet Rabbit when their pet ran over after investigating an interesting rock, and she felt her lips curve. “That,” she said, “is a wish that will come true.” Perhaps not today, or even tomorrow, but Vasic had joy in his heart now. It would one day color the air, of that she was certain.

Rising from his chair without warning, Zie Zen walked slowly into the house. Ivy didn’t follow; he’d made no invitation, and like Vasic, he wasn’t a man with whom you assumed any kind of acceptance. When he didn’t return in the next five minutes, she walked down to the edge of the lake as Vasic and the changeling said their farewells.

• • •

I would speak to you, my son.

Leaving Ivy and Rabbit searching the pebbles on the shoreline for the best one to skim across the water, Vasic headed up to the porch. Zie Zen came out of the house at the same instant, something in his right hand.

“Grandfather.” Vasic fought the urge to subtly stabilize the older man, aware Zie Zen would pick up on the interference and be offended by it. But Vasic couldn’t keep silent. “You’re leaning more heavily on your cane.” And he was walking slower, his ruler-straight back beginning to bend.

“I am old,” was the succinct answer. “And I am almost ready to go.” Lowering himself into his chair, he waited for Vasic to take the one beside him. “Before Silence,” he said, after he’d caught his breath, “some of us chose to marry. Though we may have been psychically bonded, to see my ring on my wife’s finger, it meant something. To wear hers on mine, it meant even more.”

Taking the small velvet box his great-grandfather held out, Vasic opened it to reveal two gold wedding bands, each one beautifully etched with intricate carvings. The hugeness of what he felt was a storm inside him, the words ones he couldn’t say.

“Humor an old man and wear them.” His great-grandfather closed his hand over Vasic’s, Zie Zen’s skin warm and papery, his grip strong. “Live your love into old age as I and my Sunny could not do.”

Vasic? Ivy started back to the house. What’s wrong?

Grandfather has given us a gift beyond price. He stood to catch her against him as she ran up to the porch, pressed his lips to her temple, and showed her the gift. Perhaps this wasn’t how it was done, but this was Ivy, with whom he could do nothing wrong, make no mistakes, and so he simply asked, “Will you wear my ring, Ivy?” Will you permit me to wear yours?

A jerky nod against him, her eyes overflowing.

• • •

TWO weeks later, the newly formed Empathic Collective unanimously voted Ivy in as president. Five other empaths from around the world, including Sascha Duncan, were voted in as her advisory board. Sahara Kyriakus was asked to continue on in her role as a specialist, and an invitation was extended to Alice Eldridge to come onboard as a consultant as and when she wished.

Both women accepted.

The initially suggested percentage to be paid into the Collective Fund by the membership was doubled after intense discussion, with the Es deciding they needed a powerful body that would lobby on their behalf.

The money was to be used not only to compensate those who worked for the organization, but to create secret bolt-holes for empaths and to finance the training compounds that were springing up around the world. It was also decided that the Ruling Coalition would be asked to kick in a percentage of overall tax revenue, given that it was the Es who were holding the Net together.

Of course, the empaths themselves hadn’t come up with that little point.

“You’re too inherently kind,” Vasic had told her when he first suggested the idea. “Aside from possible anomalies, as occur with any population, you tend to think of others first and yourselves second.”

It was as well they had the entire Arrow Squad on their side. The lethal group had quietly made it clear that anyone who wanted to take on the Es would have to go through them. While one-on-one partnerships were no longer possible, given the number of active Es, each and every empath had the direct contact details of at least three Arrows.

“It’s a strange, beautiful alliance,” Ivy said to her man as they sat on a dune in the desert under the golden rays of the setting sun, Rabbit’s warm body beside her as he dozed after an active day.

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