"To hate you all without reason would make me a bigot." Hawke's mouth twisted. "And I prefer not to think of myself that way." There was something deeper in the alpha's voice, layers of emotion Judd couldn't read.
"Is it Sascha?" Hawke had a distinct liking for Lucas's mate.
A smile wiped the grim expression off his face. "She did kind of throw my opinions about Psy sideways, but - " He shook his head, as if halting himself before he said too much. "I trust those who've proven their loyalty. You've done that over and over - being warm and cuddly isn't a requirement. Welcome to the pack."
Judd went down to clean off the blood with snow, somehow knowing the result could not be so easily wiped out. Hawke was doing the same. The wolf's cut had already clotted. While Judd's healing was a result of his Tk-Cell abilities, Hawke's was thanks to changeling strength. Alpha changeling strength.
"So," Judd said, "what do lieutenants do?"
"A hell of a lot of work." Hawke's grin was a touch evil.
"Guess the holiday's over." The dissonance spiked in tune with his sense of belonging, his pride, and his thoughts of a woman with eyes of shattered blue.
Brenna gasped the second she opened the tech chamber door. "Hawke blooded you!" Giving an excited shriek, she jumped into his arms, legs wrapping around his waist.
He caught her reflexively. "Careful. My abilities have regenerated."
"I thought - " She shrugged. "I thought the time apart might have helped dampen the feelings from last night."
"You're right." He saw no need to mention that the dissonance was no longer strengthening at a steady pace - it was getting exponentially worse. At no time during the day had it halted altogether. Nonessential parts of his brain were already compromised.
She rubbed her nose against his in playful affection. "So you're a lieutenant now."
"Does that make a difference to you?" He was genuinely curious.
"Baby, I knew you were bossy the first day I saw you. This just confirms it." She nipped at his lower lip. "The only difference is that I'm happy for you. You and I were always going to be."
"You'd better believe it. So what are we going to do to make it happen?" Her expression shifted without warning and she dropped off him, breaking all contact. "Your eyes...the pain, it's worse than before, isn't it?"
"It - "
She held up a hand before he could tell her it didn't matter. "It's not nothing, not when I can see blood spots in the whites of your eyes." Her voice trembled for a second before she got it under control. "How bad?"
He couldn't lie to her. "At the current rate, it'll soon cause permanent damage to my brain." A hard, rough form of rehabilitation, apt to leave him a vegetable.
In the darkest core of the PsyNet, the pure black walls of the Council chambers streamed with data, endless silver columns too fast for the eye to see but legible to the psychic mind.
"We've lost control of PineWood," Nikita said. "Parrish - the alpha - is dead, and someone's not only deprogrammed the rest of the pack, he or she has armed the hyenas' minds against further interference. Trained personnel may be able to break those blocks, but it will take considerable effort. It's not worth our time."
"Sascha?" Shoshanna asked.
"No." Nikita was certain of that. "She doesn't have the necessary skill set."
"Neither does Faith NightStar," Marshall pointed out.
"Which leaves us with an unknown." Kaleb, who'd been uncharacteristically quiet to that point. "If I'm not mistaken, programming and deprogramming skills are taught exclusively to certain branches of our armed forces."
"Correct." Ming's icy blaze. "It has to be one of the elite soldiers."
"Someone outside the Net?" Nikita knew full well that, contrary to what the masses believed, there were some Psy who were not hooked into the PsyNet. Not renegades like her daughter, but those who had never uplinked at all...because they had another option. The existence of the "Forgotten" was one of the Council's many dirty secrets.
"Not necessarily," Kaleb said. "I think it's becoming obvious we have a serious internal threat."
"The Ghost." Marshall's star went a cold, cold white.
"He has to be operating with an associate or associates," Nikita added. "One Psy can't be so skilled in both psychic and physical warfare. The lab explosions were very precise, involving a high degree of technical knowledge - wholly dissimilar to the expertise required to siphon data from secure PsyNet databases."
"Then there are the assassinations." Tatiana spoke up. "We've lost several top scientists."
"I'm checking my databases for possible renegades." Ming was silent for a minute. "Over the past ten years, we've lost one Arrow and seven soldiers with the requisite skills - in circumstances that made recovery of their bodies impossible."
"Who was the Arrow?" Tatiana again.
Nikita recalled the case. "I think we can safely cross him off the list. The entire Lauren family has been dead for over a year."
"Is that certain?" Marshall asked. "We never found bodies."
Nikita knew the wolves. "The SnowDancers don't leave bodies to find. I can't see them giving sanctuary to any Psy and particularly not a Psy of Judd Lauren's abilities. He would have been a clear threat - their rule is to kill first and ask questions of the corpses."