“It’s just . . . I don’t know.” Her shoulders slumped beneath the autumn orange of her cardigan. “I guess I thought there’d be an instant connection between us all.”

“Telepaths, telekinetics, none of us feel any kind of an immediate connection with one another.” Vasic handled a telepathic security check- in by his sentries even as he spoke. “Why should it be different for empaths?”

She made a face, brow heavy. “I didn’t say it was logical,” she muttered, as her pet jumped off the porch to walk to the center of the snowy clearing.

A small beep came from inside the cabin a second later to indicate the cooking cycle was complete on whatever meal Ivy was making, the machine now in the process of turning itself off. Ignoring it, she said, “You know something else?”

Adding another mental image to his private file of Ivy, who he did not understand and whose actions he couldn’t predict, he said, “What?”

“I made a decision to go forward, to not be chained by the past.” Her shoulders grew stiff. “A sensible choice, good for my mental health.”

“And now you find you feel anger.” There was no way to mistake the violence of emotion that was white lines around her mouth, rigid tendons on her neck, a barely controlled vibration in her voice.

“Rage,” Ivy said, “that’s what I feel when I think of what they did to me in that reconditioning room.” Jaw clenched so tight that Ivy could hear her bones grinding against one another, she spoke through the brutal roar in her ears. “They hurt me. Not the pain, though that was bad, but what they did to who I was. I’ll never again be the same Ivy who walked into that torture chamber.”

Vasic’s gaze—intense, unwavering, opaque—continued to hold hers. “You were once a girl who fought off a bully with a branch. Now you’re a woman about to fight for the survival of your race. What did you lose?”

Ivy stared at him. Then, picking up some salad in her hand, she threw it at his head. It froze in midair to float gently back into her bowl. His control further infuriated her. “What did I lose?” she said through gritted teeth. “I used to be happy, to see the world as a good place. I lost that innocence.”

Vasic took his time answering. “An innocent could not be here, could not attempt to do what you must. For this, the Net needs a warrior.”

Her pulsing anger didn’t lessen, too huge and too old a thing. It needed a target, but the people who’d hurt her weren’t here and this infuriating Arrow had just called her a warrior by implication. “I don’t understand you,” she said an instant before hot pokers lanced through her brain.

“There’s noth—” Vasic’s head snapped up at the tiny cry of pain that escaped her lips. “Ivy, what is it?” Ivy.

Vision blurring, she gripped the sides of her viciously pounding head. Something’s wrong. Her mouth couldn’t shape the words, her tongue thick and her heart a freight train. I can’t . . .

Vasic scented iron, rich and wet, before he saw the crimson-black droplets roll down Ivy’s neck. She was bleeding from one ear. Drop your shields. Blood began to trickle like tears over her cheeks. I need to see what’s happening.

No argument, her shields going down in an act of trust so staggering, Vasic couldn’t think about it if he was to function. Having already thrown his own shields around her, he scanned the surface of her mind to see countless ruptures, the mental landscape akin to a landmass ravaged by a major quake. “I’ll be back in seconds,” he said to her, so she’d know he wasn’t abandoning her, then made himself go.

Ivy was hunched over shaking when he returned with Aden. Rabbit, having run back to the porch, nudged at her with his nose, a low whine escaping the dog’s throat. “I need entry,” Aden said to Vasic, after evaluating the situation in a single glance.

Vasic slid open the shield he’d slammed around Ivy’s otherwise na**d mind only long enough for Aden to slip in, then crouched down in front of her. Though physical contact wasn’t something with which he was comfortable, he gripped her chin, forcing her to meet his gaze. So close, he couldn’t miss that her eyes were bloodshot, her pupils hugely dilated.

Aden is the medic I told you about, he telepathed. The lock placed on you during the reconditioning has collapsed. Aden is removing the broken shards. Those shards were shoving into her brain itself, could cause irreversible damage if not extracted at once—and with extreme care.

Uncontrolled. It was a faint telepathic sound as her bloody tears dripped to the fists she’d braced on her thighs.

Yes. Ivy’s scheduled operation had been meant to head off exactly this type of vicious, unpredictable fragmentation. Don’t be concerned. Aden is gifted at such delicate work.

Ivy’s hand closed around his wrist, slippery with blood. I’m scared.

Vasic hadn’t experienced fear since he was a child, the emotional resonance long since faded. Now, however, he could physically sense Ivy’s fear in the stutter of her pulse, the shallowness of her breath, the shaken tone of her mental voice, and it tore at things long dead inside him. Aden will cause you no harm.

An instant of startling clarity in the crimson copper. He’s your brother.

Not genetically, but yes.

Her head dropped, her hand spasming to fall off his wrist.

Having caught her instinctively with his telekinesis so she wouldn’t wrench her neck, he shifted close enough that her cheek could rest against his shoulder. Aden. The speed with which she’d lost consciousness was not a good sign.

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