He imagined it laying a wet path across her collarbone and over the creamy mound of her breast until it caught on the peak of a dusky pink nipple. The urge to tug down the zip on the jacket, push aside her other clothing, and undo the cruelty of the day with the soft, generous warmth of her was a violent storm surge in his blood. Holding it back with a bloodless grip, he told himself fantasies didn’t count.

So long as he didn’t put his hands on her flesh, he wouldn’t taint her.

Another part of his mind grabbed on to that thought with hungry teeth. Looking wasn’t touching, it whispered.

“That answers one question.” Ivy’s breath fogged the air as her voice merged with the voracious one in his head. “Empaths are immune to the infection.”

Subtly altering the air molecules around her face so the air she inhaled was no longer so cold, he muted the sly voice that had found a loophole in his resolve. “Yes.” Even if it could be argued that Eben and the baby’s mother had somehow protected themselves, the same couldn’t be said of the infant. “There may also be another empath among the wounded survivors.”

“Three confirmed empaths in such a small area, possibly four.” Ivy stepped close enough that the sleeve of her jacket brushed his arm. “It hints at exactly how many there must be in the Net.”

“And the fact of their necessity.” The PsyNet was alive in a way no one understood. It wouldn’t have produced so many empaths in this generation unless they served a vital function.

Nodding, Ivy bit down on her lower lip as she had a habit of doing, her eyes focused on the ground and a vertical line between her eyebrows.

What are you thinking? he asked, though he had no right to know.

Give me a minute.

So close to him that he could reach out and embrace her, she—

He paused, worked through all the tiny details he knew about her. Would you like me to hold you? he asked, unsure he was correctly reading the subtle cues.

She turned into his body in answer. Wrapping his arms around her, he took care to make certain the gauntlet didn’t dig into her, and cradled her head as he’d done when he’d held her after the nightmare. She seemed not to mind the hold, and he liked the feel of her hair, silky and warm against his skin.

This touch didn’t count, either, that starving part of him whispered. Ivy needed this; to deny her the contact would be to hurt her. Cheek pressed to his chest and arms around him, she was a small weight he could feel through her jacket and his combat uniform. He preferred her dressed as she’d been the other time, her clothing thinner, less of a barrier. It made him consider how much more of her he’d feel if he, too, was dressed in light civilian clothing.

His mind jabbed a warning down his spinal cord, telling him sensation equaled pain. Fighting the psychological brainwashing, because there was nothing painful about holding Ivy, he lowered his head to speak to her, the words quiet in the intimate space between them. “Should I have been there when you woke?”

Ivy stroked his back, and he wanted the armor off, wanted to know what it felt like to be touched by someone who did it for no reason but that she liked him. “It’s all right. I know you have a lot of duties.” Continuing to pet him in the way he’d so often seen humans and changelings do with one another, she said, “Was it bad?”

Vasic knew he should break contact, not for his sake but for hers. But if he didn’t hold her, protect her, who would? Yet the brutal fact was he had no right to even ask that question, have that thought.

“Not as bad as many other operations,” he said, putting aside the cold truth for this stolen instant. “I found survivors this time.” It hadn’t only been blood and desolation.

“I’m glad you weren’t hurt.”

He didn’t know what to say to that, so he just held her tighter.

“Thank you for holding me.”

“It’s what you need.”

“What about you?” she asked, leaning back in his arms so she could look up into his face. “What do you need?”

“This.” Having her so close, so trusting, was far more than he deserved.

Ivy shook her head a fraction. “I can sense you now. Just a hint every so often.” The clear, penetrating copper of her eyes seemed to see right through him. “I felt your hunger before.” A whisper that touched him in places she shouldn’t have been able to reach. “You want something.” Bracing her hands on his shoulders, she rose on tiptoe. “Tell me.”

He could feel his pulse rate accelerating, her words threatening to unleash the selfish, hungry thing that lived in him. “Holding you,” he said, because it was vital she understand, “it doesn’t come with any strings attached.”

Ivy’s lips curved. “I know.” Breath brushing his jaw as he leaned down a little to hear her quiet voice, she said, “You did it because you like taking care of me.”

He couldn’t dispute her conclusion.

“Well”—another whisper of air against his skin—“I like taking care of you, too. Let me give you what you want.”

Vasic knew he shouldn’t . . . but the news he’d received over the comm an hour ago appeared to have obliterated his defenses against his empath. “Send me another image,” he said before he was aware of forming the words.

Ivy’s eyes widened, her throat moved, and he knew he’d crossed a line, might just have lost the tiny part of her he’d permitted himself to have. A stabbing sensation in his gut, he went to withdraw his request when she said, “D-do you want to see me, rather than an image?”

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