When they stepped out into the starry night five minutes later, Ivy with her hands cupped around the mug of tea and her feet in snow boots, Rabbit scampered out after them. Giving Vasic her tea to hold, Ivy petted and cuddled the dog before carrying him back to his little bed. “Stay here, Rabbit. It’s too cold outside for you,” he heard her murmur gently, the sound carrying in the stillness of the night.

She was with him again soon afterward. Tugging the hood of the jacket up over her head, he stepped out to begin patrolling the compound. Nerida, get some rest, he said to one of the sentries. I’ll take over.

The other Tk sent back a quick confirmation.

“How do you measure harm to your Arrows?” Ivy’s voice was familiar in the darkness a quarter of an hour later. “Is it a breakdown in their Silence or something else?”

“It’s different for each member of the squad.”

She paused with him in the night shadow of the trees. “Some of them,” she said, tone solemn, “they’ll never break Silence, will they?”

They. As if he wasn’t on that list.

“A few are physiologically incapable of doing so.” He thought about how much to reveal, not because he didn’t trust Ivy, but because certain knowledge would put her at risk. “Part of our training used to involve a drug that can reset neural pathways if used too long. It intensifies natural psychic ability but eventually leaves the Arrow with no sense of self.”

“That’s so sad.” Stark pain in her expression, her empty mug hanging from one finger; she didn’t seem to notice when he teleported it away. “Are the victims conscious of what’s been done to them?”

“No.” That, Vasic thought, was the only mercy. “They remain members of the squad, and we’ll make certain they live out their lives at the optimal level possible.” It wouldn’t be anything those in the outside world would consider a good life, but it would be a hundred times better than anything Ming LeBon would’ve permitted.

Their former leader would’ve simply used up those men and women, then ordered their executions at the hands of medics who had promised to heal. Patton, the only other Tk-V Vasic had ever met, had been put down like a dog when he became so dependent on instruction that he was useless in the field.

An unfortunate error in his Jax regime, had been the note on the medical file Vasic had hacked into when he was old enough. The regime is being modified to ensure this type of extreme compliance does not reoccur. Vasic should be useful far beyond the usual age of termination of Arrows.

“And you?” Ivy asked, touching her hand to his gauntlet as she’d already done once before. “Did they use the drug on you?”

Vasic considered the delicate fingers on the machinery that encased him. “Aren’t you repelled by the gauntlet?”

“What?” She glanced down, frowned. “No, and stop avoiding the question.”

He thought he should tell her everything he’d done, so she’d understand who it was she touched, but then she’d be afraid of him . . . and he didn’t want Ivy afraid. “When I was younger, yes,” he said in answer to her question about Jax. “Later, thanks to a subterfuge by Judd, all Arrows were taken off it.”

“And you were fine?”

“I’m much, much better at delicate ’ports than anyone realizes.” They should have, after watching him deal with blood until not even a single fine droplet of it remained in carpet, but no one had ever made the connection.

Ivy’s eyes widened. “You ’ported out the drug while it was still in the delivery system.” A whisper that held a passionate emotion he couldn’t pinpoint. “That’s incredible.”

“Unfortunately, it took me time to learn the trick.” He’d been forced to work under the influence of the drug for dozens of missions and whenever Ming LeBon required his teleportation skills. As a result of the latter, he’d had more Jax in his system as a teenager than most experienced members of the squad.

He’d escaped a permanent reset by three injections at most.

“I couldn’t do the same for the others, except on random occasions when I was in the room while they were being injected.” He’d tried, but he couldn’t risk giving away the fact that the squad wasn’t as under Ming LeBon’s control as the former Councilor had believed.

He hadn’t needed Aden to tell him that those they lost to the drug, if given the choice, would’ve chosen that fate rather than jeopardize their brothers-in-arms. That made the losses weigh no less heavily on Vasic’s heart, adding to the other bodies that lay on it, until the organ had gone permanently numb.

Ivy’s hand tightened on the gauntlet. He could feel the pressure of her touch through the sensors that linked every single square millimeter of the hard black surface that protected the delicate computronics beneath to living nerve tissue. But he couldn’t feel her. And for the first time, he began to question his choice to allow himself to be used as the guinea pig for the experimental fusion.

That was when he became aware of the sheen of wetness in her eyes. “Ivy? You’re in distress.”

“You carry so much guilt, Vasic.” Raw, her voice sounded as if it hurt. “A crushing weight of it.”

Vasic thought of the deaths he’d meted out in darkness, the lives he’d erased, and shook his head. “No, Ivy. I can never carry enough.” Never do anything to balance the scales.

• • •

IVY wanted to pound against the armor that insulated Vasic, smash apart the gauntlet on his arm, though she knew her anger was misdirected. It wasn’t the outer shell that mattered. She could batter it to pieces and still never breach the ice that encased him.

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