Ivy spread her hand over her heart. “He’s hurt inside,” she said, the boy’s anguish so deep and heartrending she’d sensed it even without lowering her empathic shields. “His family?” It was an instinctive question; she’d checked on her parents the instant after Vasic ’ported out, discovered the shock wave had been nowhere near as violent in their region. Everyone in the settlement was safe.

Vasic’s response to her question was brief. “Unknown.”

Releasing an unsteady breath, she shook her head. “There’s a good chance one or both of them are dead, isn’t there?”

“Yes.” No expression on his face, no hint of care, but he’d wrapped the distressed teenager in a blanket and brought him here instead of leaving him to the medics on-site. That told Ivy everything she needed to know about the man who had quietly wound chains of stunning winter frost around her heart.

“You be careful, too,” she said, and touched his arm.

Glancing down, he just barely brushed his fingertips over her own.

She curled her fingers into her palm when he was gone, holding on to the contact like a precious jewel.

• • •

ADEN sealed another part of the jagged tear in the fabric of the Net, conscious of the staggering depth of power that kept it closed so he could do what needed to be done. Kaleb Krychek’s strength was beyond all known measurements.

Repair complete, he telepathed and moved to the next section.

Vasic, Kaleb said without warning. Do you want to pull him out of Alaska? I can have a unit of my own men in the area within a half hour.

The question betrayed an understanding of Vasic’s psychological state that Aden had trouble believing came from the ruthless dual cardinal. Emotional intelligence had never been a weapon in Krychek’s arsenal . . . but the other man was no longer working alone. The question and its attendant insight, Aden thought, was far more apt to have come from Sahara Kyriakus.

No, he replied. Vasic won’t leave, given the scale of the situation. Aden couldn’t order Vasic to do so, as he could the rest of the squad. That wasn’t how their partnership worked.

I neither discard nor undervalue my people, Aden, was Krychek’s response. Vasic is too critical a piece of the squad to lose.

That sounded more like the cardinal, the equation a calculated one—but beneath the calculation was the same capacity for loyalty that had first drawn the squad to him. Unlike Ming LeBon, Kaleb Krychek might be ruthless, but he did not sacrifice or betray those who kept faith with him.

He’s stable at present, Aden said at last, unwilling to trust Krychek with the changes he’d sensed in Vasic—their alliance remained a new construct, with secrets on both sides.

I’ll bow to your judgment on this point. Krychek caught a fraying edge, held it in an unyielding telepathic fist. However, we need to talk about the gauntlet. I’ve accessed the latest reports, and it’s clear the biofusion is becoming increasingly more unreliable.

Surprise was an Arrow’s enemy, but Kaleb Krychek had provoked it in Aden today. It wasn’t the fact the dual cardinal had managed to get his hands on medical files that were technically private that disconcerted Aden. It was that he valued an individual Arrow enough to bother. Then again, Vasic was a very useful tool. The biofusion team is continuing to work on stabilizing it. The threat of a further malfunction is minimal at present.

They worked in silence for the next forty-five minutes, and again, it was Krychek who broke it. Status on Cristabel Rodriguez?

Healing and liable to be back to active duty within a month, Aden supplied. The squad’s strength has not been compromised—we have another shooter with the same level of accuracy as Cris.

Kaleb’s reply was another unexpected statement. I’m aware of that. Cristabel, however, is a highly gifted trainer, according to the squad’s own training records.

Again, it was information the cardinal shouldn’t have, but Aden didn’t interrupt.

Losing her would have a ripple effect, Krychek continued. Have you considered pulling her off active duty?

Retiring under Ming LeBon had inevitably led to an execution disguised as an accident—because no Arrow was ever permitted to retire until he or she was so worn-out that mistakes were inevitable. Yes, he responded carefully, wanting to measure Krychek’s response. Cris has an affinity for teaching and is unlikely to oppose the transfer. Aden had, in fact, discussed the possibility with the older Arrow. The E placement had been meant to be a quiet one intended to give her time to think.

Then do it, Krychek said. You now have total control of the Arrow training program. Shape it to fit the needs of those who come to you. A long pause. I know how I was trained. I can guess how Vasic was trained. There has to be a better way, a way that doesn’t threaten to turn children into monsters.

Aden was silent for over an hour, not because he didn’t agree with Krychek, but because he did. He’d already ousted the sociopaths and the sadists from the training program. Some had been Ming’s men, others Arrows so far gone that they couldn’t tell that what they were doing was wrong. Torture was no longer permitted on any level.

That had taken care of the short-term problem, but the larger one remained. Arrows were Arrows for a reason: their power was vicious and almost always deadly. Yes, he said at last. There has to be a better way. All he had to do was find it.

• • •

IVY checked in on Eben two hours after he’d fallen asleep to find the teenager sitting up in bed. Rabbit was butting his head against Eben’s chest, the dog’s tongue hanging out in ecstasy, while the boy scratched him behind his ears.

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