Sascha read between the lines and what she heard was so heartbreaking she couldn't speak. Marlee's biological mother had forsaken her child, handed her over for torture. The staggering nature of the betrayal was something no one with a human or changeling heart would ever understand. And Sascha's heart was no longer Psy, if it had ever been.
"How can you be alive?" Lucas raised her hand to his lips for a gentle kiss. She knew it wasn't a territorial marking - it was simply a changeling gesture of affection for a mate, something he hadn't even thought about. But all the Psy in the room noticed. And wondered. "According to Sascha, once you're cut off from the Net, you lose the feedback needed to function."
"That's what we thought," Walker began. "When we decided to defect, we came to the SnowDancers because of their reputation with the Psy. They're thought of as brutal animals who kill without conscience. However, we'd researched them during the time the Council allowed us to wrap up our affairs. We knew they wouldn't destroy Toby and Marlee on sight."
Sascha frowned. "I don't think the little ones need to be here for this." Their fear was very real and very scary.
"That's what I told them," Hawke said, a tic at the corner of his mouth. "We don't talk about this kind of stuff in front of pups."
"You expect us to leave them to your tender care?" Judd asked.
"Sienna, take the kids and go," Hawke ordered.
Surprising Sascha, the clearly headstrong teenager stood and took Toby's hand. "Marlee, come here."
The girl looked to her father. Finally, Walker nodded. Marlee almost ran to Sienna's other side and slipped her hand into the redhead's free one. The young ones had obviously become used to touch in the months they'd been here and, Sascha guessed, the older Psy were trying to learn to accept those touches for the children's sake. No normal Psy would've ever allowed care for another to influence them, but the Laurens were hardly normal.
"I'm doing this for Toby and Marlee, not you." The defiant words were directed at Hawke.
The alpha gave her a mock-salute. "Heaven forbid you do anything because I asked you to."
"I deserve to know what's going on." Sienna looked at her uncles. "I'm not a child."
"Stay in contact." Walker's tone revealed nothing of what he thought of Sienna's going over to the "dark side" and obeying Hawke's command.
No one spoke until the door had closed behind Sienna and the kids. Then they talked of death.
"So you expected to die," Sascha said.
"Of course." Walker nodded. "But we wanted to give Toby and Marlee a chance. They're young enough to learn to live a new way, their minds still plastic. We hoped that they might survive the necessary cutoff from the Net, somehow be able to find new pathways in their brain. It wasn't much of a chance but it was more than they'd have had otherwise."
"She was sixteen at the time." Walker's eyes were so coldly clinical that it startled Sascha to realize they were the same pale green as Marlee's. "We worked on the assumption that the wolves would see her as a threat and eliminate her."
"Yet you brought her in?" Lucas's voice was a whip. "You took a juvenile into almost certain death?"
If Sascha didn't know better, she'd have thought that Judd's jaw set in anger. "We had no choice," the younger male said. "Sienna would rather have died than be rehabilitated. If we hadn't taken her, she would've followed us on her own."
Sascha stroked Lucas with the secret part of her mind, which she was finally learning to understand. "They're right," she said. "Rehabilitation is worse than death, worse than anything you can imagine."
Lucas allowed her to soothe him, allowed her to surround him in affection. "Why didn't you kill them?" he asked Hawke.
"We're not idiots - it was obvious they'd come expecting death-by-changeling." His hand was a fist on the table.
"We captured them with the intention of collecting a ransom."
"Then we told him it was the Council that would pay the ransom and why," Judd said. "It left him in a bad position. He couldn't have five Net-linked Psy in his territory and since he has a conscience, he couldn't simply execute us or hand us over to be rehabilitated. He told us to cut the link."
"We'd always known that any of us who survived the SnowDancers would have to do that in any case to ensure our safety," Walker added. "Once the Council figured out we'd escaped, they would've used the Net link to exterminate us. No one defects from the Psy."
Judd looked straight at Sascha and she realized that he was quite unbelievably handsome in the perfect way of the Psy. "Sienna was the one who thought of it." His bearing was as formal as his brother's.
"Of what?" Sascha was fascinated by the Laurens. It was clear that the two youngest were indeed starting to adapt, their minds able to integrate with the changeling way of life. Equally, Judd and Walker remained locked in their Psy world, having lived the lie for too long.
Unlike her, the two males didn't have the very nature of their powers forcing them to face up to their emotions. Then there was Sienna, caught in the middle. At sixteen she would've been almost fully conditioned, ready to function as a cog in the Psy machine.
"Of a familial PsyNet," Walker said, meeting her gaze. "She proposed that we start to drop out of the Net one after the other, with only milliseconds between each drop."
"As if we were butchering them." Hawke's eyes were the chill blue of Arctic ice. Sascha fought the urge to reach out to him - he'd likely bite her hand off. The woman who took on this wolf would have to be either very brave or very stupid.