“I’ve never done anything behind your back.” Aden had only ever had one true friend, someone he knew would fight for him and with him regardless of whether he held any power or not. The others in the squad he trusted, but Vasic occupied an entirely different place in his life, until it was as if their blood was the same. Aden would do whatever was necessary to make sure the other man made it, though he knew it might well be an impossible task.

The reason he and Vasic had become friends as children, the reason the others in the squad looked to him instinctively, was the same reason Vasic had never been meant to be an Arrow. He felt too deeply, was too much the protector. As an angry, scared eight-year-old boy when he and Aden first met, he should’ve been focused only on himself—yet he’d sensed Aden’s continual and crushing fear for his Arrow parents.

Instead of resenting Aden for having parents who’d cared enough about him to fight to keep him with them through his enrollment in the squad’s training program, Vasic had come up with distractions to help Aden cope. Later, Vasic had risked severe punishment to help Aden break into the control room so Aden could read the files on his parents’ missions.

That part of Vasic had been buried beneath the weight of the life he’d been forced to live, but it existed. It had always existed. And it would destroy him if Aden couldn’t find a way to redirect his self-hatred and guilt.

“It appears you’ve captured Rabbit’s interest,” Vasic said into the comfortable silence between them, and it was an unexpected comment.

Aden glanced down at the canine that was still sitting on its rump, eyes locked on him. “Perhaps he’s weighing the pros or cons of biting me.”

Vasic didn’t answer, his head angled toward one of the cabins to their left.

Ivy Jane appeared on the porch a second later, a large Arrow jacket engulfing her small body and two steaming mugs in her hands. “Here,” she said when she reached Aden and Vasic, the shadows under her eyes smudges of purple. “Hot nutrient drinks.”

Aden recognized the jacket from a small tear on the upper left sleeve. It had happened during a brutal mission in Alaska, Vasic left alone in a ghost town full of corpses. Aden hadn’t been able to prevent that, and Vasic had asked him not to try. To have done so would’ve put their entire plan to oust Ming LeBon in jeopardy. So Vasic had spent hours teleporting out the dead, the inhabitants of the remote science station having fallen victim to the infection in what was the first known outbreak.

The squad hadn’t been aware of that fact at the time, however; Ming LeBon had withheld the information as he’d withheld so much from the men and women who’d trusted him because he’d once been an active member of the squad. It had taken them too long to realize that while the latter might’ve been true, Ming had never been one of them. He’d always been an “I,” his personal political aspirations trumping any other loyalty.

The Alaska incident, Aden realized, was also the last time he’d seen Vasic wearing that jacket. The other man had used it in the interim, of course, but Aden hadn’t been with him during those operations.

To see it now in such a different context was . . . interesting.

“Thank you,” he said, taking the drink Ivy had prepared. Arrows never ate or drank anything from an unfamiliar source, but taking his cue from Vasic, Aden took a sip of the drink. Why is it hot?

Ivy doesn’t want us to feel the cold.

From which, Aden deduced that Vasic hadn’t told her about the weatherproof properties of the combat uniforms. He immediately understood why. It was strange to be cared for in this fashion, and the strangeness was so unlike everything else in the life of an Arrow that he could find no motivation to clarify the situation for Ivy, either.

He drank a little more, as the empath, her hair braided but curling tendrils falling around her face, looked pointedly at Vasic.

An instant later, the other Arrow said, “Ivy, meet Aden.”

“Hi.” The empath’s smile was open. “It’s nice to meet you when I’m not about to fall unconscious. Thank you for saving my life.”

Before Aden could respond, Vasic spoke again. “You should still be asleep.”

Ivy’s shoulders rose then fell. “I tried but couldn’t. I’ll catch a nap later.” Bending, she petted the little dog with unhidden affection. “My stubborn Rabbit will need a rest, too. He was wide awake and waiting for me when I got back from our walk last night.”

Our walk.

Zeroing in on the words, Aden found himself thinking about the possible unintended side effects of being around the empaths for an Arrow. It was something he’d begun to research when Vasic reported Abbot’s new stability, but the post-Silence Council had done what appeared to be an immaculate job of scrubbing the Net clean of data about the Es. Even non-Net databases had been cleared, printed books taken off shelves and incinerated. Rare copies were rumored to remain but were proving near impossible to track down. As soon as a merchant got even a whiff of Psy interest in the subject, the listing disappeared.

As a result, Aden still had no frame of reference for an empath’s impact on an Arrow, but there was one thing he could judge with accuracy, and that was Vasic’s psychological state. Seeing his partner interact with Ivy made Aden realize Vasic was no longer on the lethal edge where Aden needed to keep an eye on him at all times. Such a result had been his best-case scenario when he’d given Vasic the one task to which his partner had always been suited: protection.

With that best-case scenario already a reality, the future was now an unpredictable road. “We were discussing the impact of last night’s events on your fellow Es,” he said to Ivy Jane when she rose back to her full height. “Do you think any will ask to leave?”

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