Ivy turned her attention to her growling pet. “Hear that, Rabbit? Don’t go around snarling at our hosts or they might decide to eat you for lunch.” There was a flush of quiet pink on her cheeks when she looked back up. “Sorry, I’m used to talking to him.”

“Do you find it therapeutic?” Vasic had never had a pet, didn’t understand the concept.

Ivy didn’t know how to answer Vasic’s question without saying too much . . . but what was the use of hiding things? He already knew her most perilous secrets. On that realization came a wave of freedom. “He was a stray,” she began, “crawled into the orchard bedraggled, skinny, and broken up from a fight . . . while I was still . . . wrong.” Not real, nothing but a shade of the girl she’d once been, her mind brutalized and her soul battered, chilling screams at night the only sound she made all day.

“I fed him because I didn’t know what else to do, then carried him to the vet. No one would say anything, but I could tell the adults thought he was going to die.” It had been a moment of acute insight, slicing through the fog in which she existed. “I wanted to tell them they were all wrong, that I could see his will to live in his eyes, but I didn’t have the words then.

“Instead, I took him home with me after the vet cast his broken leg, fed him by hand, and made sure his wounds stayed clean.” Her parents had found her curled up with Rabbit in the barn the first night, and carried them both into the family cabin. “It was maybe five days later that he staggered up and started trying to walk.

“A week after that, he fell into a muddy patch of field, and I found myself washing him.” Laughter chased out the lingering echoes of horror. “I had to chase him around with a hose.” Her pet had been so fast, even with the cast on one leg. “By the end, I was drenched head to toe myself.”

Ivy met Vasic’s gaze, tried to make him understand. “Caring for Rabbit was the first time in seven months I’d done anything except follow simple instructions.” She’d been a living, breathing automaton, the only sign of conscious life her desire to help her parents do chores—even when it was clear her brain wasn’t sending the right signals to her limbs.

Vasic considered her snarling dog. “He was a wounded living creature, and you are an empath. He spoke to the most immutable aspect of your nature.”

Ivy didn’t care about the technicalities of how or why. She just knew Rabbit had saved her as she’d saved him. Skinny but stubborn, he’d wriggle his way under her hand when she sat staring out into nothingness, nudge at her until she gave in and petted his then-ratty coat. When her fingers kept spasming open to drop the apples she was attempting to collect, he’d used his teeth to pick them up and put them in her basket. His determination had given her the impetus to bite back her tearful frustration and try again and again and again.

And again.

Somewhere along the way, her brain began to rewire itself, finding pathways around sections so badly bruised, Ivy’s head had pulsed with the excruciating pain of it for three years after her reconditioning.

“I relearned to run because Rabbit wanted to play,” she said through the knot in her throat. “He was so small and skinny, but he never gave up, so I couldn’t, either.” It had taken time for her pet to put on weight, for his coat to become shiny and healthy, the transformation echoed in her own healing mind.

When he’d collapsed in exhaustion, she’d picked him up in her arms. And when she’d fallen because her body refused to do what it should, he’d nudged and barked encouragement at her until she dragged herself back up. “Three months after he arrived, I spoke for the first time. A month after that, I asked for brain therapy.”

The intense sessions with a settlement medic had slowly helped her reclaim the final pieces of her mind. “It was hard.” Comparable to the agonizing physical therapy sometimes necessary after severe injuries to the body. “But each time I thought I’d reached my limit, I’d remember watching Rabbit crawl into the orchard even when he was so broken, and I’d find another store of willpower.”

The wind riffled through Vasic’s hair in the silence that followed her story. “I’ll take care when ’porting him,” he said at last. “Though perhaps I should be the one concerned for my safety.”

Startled into a smile by that cool statement, she blinked away the burning in her eyes and reached down to pick up her teeth-baring pet. “He’ll behave, won’t you?” She turned Rabbit’s face toward Vasic. “Hold out your hand so he can sniff it.”

Vasic did so, but Rabbit refused to look at it, fascinated by everything in view but the Arrow’s hand. Ivy attempted to get him to turn, only to be forced to concede defeat. “I’m sorry.” She placed Rabbit back on the ground—and he immediately took position in front of her, canines flashing. “Maybe after he gets to know you a little more.”

Vasic didn’t appear put out by the rejection. Then again, he’d been as icily calm after handling the two intruders earlier. Ivy had the disconcerting sense that nothing could penetrate the cold black armor of an Arrow . . . and for some reason, she wanted to do exactly that, fascinated by the tiny glimpse of a personality beyond the ice.

“The experiment,” Vasic now said, “is to begin as soon as the security perimeter around the site is complete. You should be packed and ready to depart at short notice.”

“Will you comm me?” She fought the growing temptation to touch the frost of him, convince herself he was real and not a winter illusion sent to tell her fantastical things.

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