The lush softness of her lips.
Overwhelmed and incapable of processing the sensory input, he did the only thing he could: He shut it all down with jaw-clenched focus, sense by sense. It took several minutes, but he had both body and mind under control when he rose to his feet—after using a handful of clean snow to wash the sweat off his face and the back of his neck.
Then, instead of reprimanding Ivy for doing something that had cut his legs out from under him, he said, Thank you. He wasn’t going to erase that image. Not now, not ever. It was his.
No one could take it from him now, steal the piece of herself she’d handed him. He would keep it in his private mental file of all things Ivy Jane, and he’d look at it any time he needed an instant of beauty in the darkness.
• • •
TOES curling inside her boots, Ivy swallowed. Jaya and I are going to explore the infection. The Es had decided as a group that no one should undertake the task alone the first time. The others will be doing the same throughout the day, in pairs. Her own partner—her friend—had arrived half a minute ago, taken one look at Ivy’s scarlet face, and demanded an explanation.
Ivy had stuttered that it was nothing, but Jaya, her elegant features shadowed by the hood she’d pulled over her head, wasn’t convinced. The other E might be quiet and composed, but she was also relentless. Now she nudged at Ivy with an elbow. “You had such a guilty expression in your eyes, I know you did something. Even Rabbit knows it—look at his face.”
“Hush,” Ivy muttered with her best attempt at a glare. “I’m telling Vasic what we’re planning.”
I’ll keep an eye on you, Vasic said at that instant, pull you out if I see any signs of distress.
Wrapping his words around her like a shield, she nodded at Jaya, and the two of them entered the vast psychic sprawl of the PsyNet. Each mind within it was represented by a cold white star, the darkness between streaming with data. It was a creation of painful beauty, and of necessity.
No Psy could survive without the biofeedback provided by a neural network, but now, the biofeedback itself had turned toxic. Ivy flinched at what she saw directly in front of her—the viscous, fetid blackness that denoted the infection, its tongue licking out at the eighteen minds located within the compound.
“Hunger . . . such hunger.” Chilled horror in Jaya’s tone, all traces of teasing wiped away. “It’s starving and it wants us all. Every cell, every limb, every breath.”
Ivy rubbed her abdomen in a futile effort to ease the gnawing ache that had eaten up the knots and spilled out scraping pain. Tears dripped down her face, caught in her throat. “It’s so lonely. It hurts.” As if it was a sentient thing, not a mindless disease.
“Yes.” Jaya’s voice held a sob. “It knows it’s unwanted.”
They stared at the oil-slick black that wasn’t sentient, and yet . . . and yet . . .
All the air rushed out of Ivy’s body. The infection was changing, becoming a woman of absolute, endless darkness. She reached out toward Ivy and Jaya with her hands, a pulsing malevolence to her that made them stumble back. It took but a heartbeat for Ivy and Jaya both to stop and reverse direction, compelled to ease that piercing, haunting loneliness, but they were too late. The woman collapsed out of existence, and the infection was once more a mindless disease without emotion or thought.
Opening her eyes to the crystal-clear air, Ivy wiped away her tears.
“What was that?” Jaya whispered wetly.
“I don’t know.” That was when Ivy realized the sun was in a different position in the sky from when she and Jaya had begun. Who is she? Ivy asked the gray-eyed Arrow who now stood only three feet away. The dark woman in the Net?
The DarkMind. According to Kaleb Krychek, she is created of all the emotions our race sought not to feel and attempted to suppress out of existence. He believes the infection was born from the same festering soup.
Does the DarkMind control the infection?
No, but it is impervious to it.
Ivy shivered and shared the information with Jaya, wanting the protective strength of Vasic’s arms around her, but he was already turning to walk away, his expression distant. It was as if they’d never had their earlier conversation, never found themselves entangled in her inappropriate fantasy. Her heart ached. Every time she thought she’d made a crack in the ice, she was forced to confront the fact that a lifetime spent in the shadows couldn’t be so painlessly navigated.
“It’s hard, isn’t it?” Jaya lay her head on Ivy’s shoulder. “I’m falling for my Arrow, too.”
“Do you think,” Ivy said, “it’s just the proximity?” Even as she spoke, she knew it wasn’t; she’d felt a dangerous tug toward Vasic the first time they’d met, in the apple orchard as he, a man encased in winter, crouched in front of her.
“No.” Raising her head, Jaya pushed back her hood to reveal a neat braid. “The others get along with their Arrows, but it’s not like me with Abbot or you with Vasic.” A trembling sigh, her eyes on where Vasic had halted to talk to Abbot. “Maybe the others . . . maybe they’re the smart ones.”
Jaya was right. It would, in all probability, be smarter to walk away, to try to build a bond with a different man, a man who hadn’t grown up an Arrow, but—“I don’t want to live a safe, smart life, Jaya. I want passion and fury and Vasic.”
Jaya’s lips curved in a tremulous smile. “Me, too,” she whispered, the deep brown of her skin glowing in the sunshine. “Only I don’t want your Vasic. No offense, but he has nothing on my Abbot.”