In the aftermath of her “treatment,” it had felt like she was just . . . gone, the Ivy who’d lived for sixteen years erased. There had been a quiet horror at the back of her mind at the loss of herself, but that horror couldn’t penetrate the nothingness, not for a long, long time.

“That incident”—Vasic’s voice slicing through the nightmare of memory—“resulted from a catastrophic and sudden breach of your conditioning. The built-up pressure smashed it to pieces.”

That’s exactly what it had felt like, a violent explosion in her head.

“Most Es tend to awaken more slowly,” he continued. “Small fractures that leach off tension rather than a catastrophic collapse.”

Most . . .

“How many?” she asked, her voice hoarse.

“Unknown, but E is a significant grouping.” His gaze scanned her face with clinical precision. “You’re in shock. Sit.” When she did nothing, he went as if to touch her . . . and Rabbit lunged at him.

“No!” she screamed.

Rabbit never reached his target, was left swimming frantically in the air. Reaching down, she gathered her pet into her arms and sat down at the foot of the nearest tree, uncaring of the cold, the datapad forgotten on the ground. “I thought you were going to hurt him,” she said to the Arrow, the telekinetic Arrow.

Vasic didn’t defend himself. As an eight-year-old, he’d resisted using his abilities on living creatures, but an eight-year-old boy can’t withstand torture of the kind used to burn all humanity out of Arrow trainees. He knew he held within himself the capacity to snap the neck or crush the spine of the small creature who was so attached to his mistress. That he’d never done such an act of his own free will meant nothing. Death was death. “Do you wish me to continue?”

Ivy looked at him, her jet-black pupils hugely dilated against the clear copper of her eyes. “Yes.”

“In all probability, your already damaged pathways were further damaged during the reconditioning process.” Needing to be aware of what he faced, Vasic had watched the recording Aden had referenced, witnessed the brutality with which her mind had been yanked back into line.

It was a miracle she’d survived without severe brain damage. The psychic trauma had been vicious regardless. That she was functional and whole and strong enough to stand firm against an Arrow was a testament to what must be an iron will.

“However,” he added, “it’s clear that your Silence has fractured again.” No one who was Silent would have the capacity to care for a pet, or to look at Vasic with fear a staccato pulse in her throat. “The buildup is happening again inside you.”

Ivy set her pet down on the snow, murmuring at the dog to hush when it began to growl at Vasic once more. “You’re saying I could be in the same situation I was at sixteen?”

“Yes.” He crouched down beside her, having realized she couldn’t comfortably look at him if he remained standing. “The technician in charge of your reconditioning was incompetent.” A point Vasic had already made to him in person—and a point the male would never, ever forget. “He simply smashed everything back down inside your mind and slammed a lock over it. That lock is apt to rupture soon, given the amateurish nature of it.”

He saw he’d come too close to the truth when she avoided his eyes, her jawline delicate in his vision . . . easily breakable. “You risk nothing by telling me,” he pointed out, “I’m already aware of both your problematic Silence and the nature of your ability.”

Expression pensive, she rubbed a gloved hand over her face before nodding. “The nosebleeds have begun again, and yesterday, while I was getting supplies from the township, it was as if I was drowning under a wave of happiness and anger and excitement and curiosity and other emotions I couldn’t separate out.” Her fingers shook as she stroked her pet. “It only lasted a second or two, but it was enough.”

Vasic held her gaze, noting that the rim of gold around her irises was more vivid than in the image he had of her. “You may learn how to manage your E abilities during the course of this contract. However, should you decide to turn down the proposal and continue to remain shielded against your abilities, I know a medic who can remove the broken shards of the malfunctioning lock and replace it with a far more subtle, complex construction.”

She stared at him, this woman whose presence caused him physical pain the same way Sascha Duncan’s had. But he wasn’t going to ask for another assignment if Ivy agreed to Krychek’s proposal. Seeing her, speaking to her, had made him understand that aside from children, the empaths were the closest thing the Net had to innocents.

He’d spotted Ivy’s weapon, noted her distaste in holding it, seen her get rid of it. Her features were so expressive it was as if she’d spoken aloud—he’d known she’d made the decision to use herself as a distraction in an effort to protect the others who lived here. Perhaps he was wrong, perhaps her face wasn’t as devoid of deceit as it appeared, but he couldn’t take the risk that he was right, that she was that vulnerable. Because he didn’t trust Krychek to keep his word when it came to the safety of the empaths; the other man’s priority was the Net as a whole, not the individuals within it.

Ivy and the others needed the protection he could provide. Unlike her, he’d have no compunction in using lethal force if someone meant her—or any other E—harm. Keeping them safe wouldn’t earn him absolution, but perhaps it would give him peace for a splinter of time. “Whatever your choice,” he told her, “it will be respected. I give you my word.” His honor was close to worthless, but he’d never broken any of the rare promises he’d made. Copyright 2016 - 2023