He shouldn’t have gone behind closed doors with her, but he teleported them into her cabin. Pacing to the kitchen counter then back, Ivy slapped both her hands against his chest and pushed. “You don’t get to do that, Vasic! You don’t get to just give up!”

He gripped her wrists again, the feel of her skin against his own water to ground so parched he knew it had no hope of recovery. “I’ll never give up.” Peace, dark and quiet, had long been the beacon that kept him moving along the numb road of his life, but he could never find it by leaving her to face the world alone. “I will protect you until the day I die.” No one would ever hurt Ivy, ever bruise the bright hope of her. “I’m tainted, Ivy. There’s so much ugliness on me it can never be washed away.”

Ivy’s chest heaved as she tried to gasp in air. “You think that makes me happy?” Her hands attempting to push against him again. “To know you intend to spend the rest of your life at the periphery of mine, alone in the darkness?”

“It’s who I am.” The pattern had been set long ago. “I can’t change.” Could never erase the horror of all he’d done.

“Or you won’t change!” Her body trembling, she tugged at her wrists again, this time with far less force.

And he had to set her free, the warmth of her leaving a sensory tattoo against his palms even as ice formed in his bones. Ignoring the pain, he gathered up the echoes of sensation and placed them carefully in his private mental vault, though he knew memory would never do justice to all the facets of her. The green apple scent of her hair, the lush softness that was simply Ivy, the silken fragility of her skin, the angry flutter of her pulse beneath his thumb . . . he couldn’t hope to capture Ivy Jane in any box.

“Wear the jacket.” A snapped-out command as he headed for the door. “It’s started to snow.”

He obeyed the order, stepped out into the cold. However, when it was time for him to go off shift, he returned to her night-dark cabin ostensibly to leave the jacket for her. Hearing her calm, steady breathing beyond the screen that hid her bed, he hung up the jacket on a kitchen chair, then stretched out on the floor. Comfort was meaningless, his body trained to find rest where it could . . . but at least here, he was close to her.

His hands were too stained with blood to touch her, but he could use those same brutal hands to keep her safe, protect her from harm.

A whisper of clothing against skin followed by the sound of feet on the floor.

Vasic kept his eyes shut, felt a blanket being placed over him, Ivy’s palm cupping his cheek for a single instant before she broke contact to slide a pillow under his head with a gentle touch. “I am so mad at you,” she whispered, then tugged up the blanket and pressed a kiss to his temple that smashed an ice pick through his defenses, green apples and Ivy in his every breath. “And this is ridiculous, sleeping on the floor. Stubborn man.”

Opening his eyes after she left, he stared into the darkness as he fought to ride out the dissonance for the thousandth time since he’d met her. At its basest level, Silence worked by linking pain to emotion until the mind learned to avoid that which caused it hurt.

The brutality of the punishment was multiplied tenfold for Arrows: Vasic hadn’t only had his leg broken when he’d asked to go home as a child. He’d been deliberately burned then healed, not once, not twice, but over and over; had suffered electrical shocks; had been locked na**d in an icy room until his extremities froze, only for him to then be put into overwhelming heat that made his nerve endings scream awake.

All before he was eight years old.

The worst thing was that it had been done by people he’d initially thought he could trust. His mentor, Patton, had doled out many of the worst punishments, his years on Jax having erased any empathic center he may have once had. A few of the other Arrows had tried to ameliorate the viciousness of Vasic’s training, but they’d been limited in what they could do, the rebellion that had begun to simmer in the ranks not yet strong enough to emerge from the shadows.

Vasic’s brain was now hardwired to equate emotion with pain and to strengthen the message with further punishment, agony spearing down into his spine. A perfect loop that had been programmed to end in death should the subject continue to defy the conditioning. It was fortunate, therefore, that he didn’t have the physiological triggers in his mind that backed up the psychological coercion.

The dissonance could not kill him.

He had no idea how Judd had broken those deeply embedded telepathic controls without suffering severe brain damage. Vasic wouldn’t have been able to do so without Aden, his own telepathy lacking the required delicacy. The other Arrow’s expertise had been hard-won, the cost paid in agonizing convulsions that could’ve left him brain-dead.

Now only a single critical tripwire remained in Vasic’s mind—one that would give him a sharp, pointed warning should his telekinesis threaten to rage out of control. Vasic didn’t know how many other Arrows Aden had helped escape the vise around their minds, but it wasn’t a small number—and it included Abbot. What Aden couldn’t fix was the long-term psychological impact of the extreme dissonance on many of them. While Vasic could tell his mind emotion and sensation didn’t mean pain, it had learned otherwise too early.

Learning the opposite would take time, but Vasic would rewire himself to accept the pleasure that was Ivy’s lips on his skin, her skin against his. If that was all he’d ever have of her, he would experience the memories in all their glory. Exhaling in silence, he opened his mental Ivy file and located the one of her whispering to him about Turkish Delight. He’d researched the candy during a night shift, found a store in San Francisco that sold it, and now started to scroll through their online listings.

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