Of course, as far as she was concerned, the point was moot - for her, the pain would be negligible if perceptible at all... because the controls were already rotted away. One moment of decision was all it would take to break the shackles that remained. Then she could be a mother in more than name only. Then she could find a way to comprehend this leopard in front of her.
She'd spent years determined to maintain total Silence for a reason, had succeeded so well that she'd fooled Ming LeBon himself. She'd even fooled herself, until -
A hand waved in front of her eyes. She blinked. "I apologize," she said, scrambling to rebuild the wall of lies that had kept her alive this long. "I occasionally become lost in thought."
Dorian watched her with disconcerting intensity. She wondered what he saw. But all he said was, "Switch the chips."
She did so, then slid the cover back on. Dorian held it for her while she stripped off her gloves. When she took it back, she found herself staring at the blank screen for several seconds. If she'd made a mistake, the game would be over before it began. Evidence was crucial. Otherwise the Council would squash her like a bug.
"Give it to me." Dorian took the device with impatient hands and put in the password.
Files began scrolling across the screen at an unreadable speed. Ashaya's legs threatened to turn to jelly.
"Hot damn." Dorian whistled. "Guess you know what you're doing after all. Brains and curves."
The admiring whistle snapped her upright. "I had the distinct impression you wanted to kill me, not appreciate my curves."
His teeth glinted as he gave her a grin that held a distinctly savage edge. "They're not mutually exclusive."
Flawless logic. Incomprehensible logic. She decided to return her attention to something she had a hope of understanding. "I need to get some of this information out into the media." It would break her promise to Zie Zen, but her loyalty to Keenan came first. To keep him safe, she'd lie, cheat, even kill.
Turning off the organizer, Dorian gave her a lazy kind of look that did nothing to dull the steel in his tone. "Well, now, according to the intel I got while you were napping, you're supposed to go under."
She maintained eye contact, reaching into the same icy reservoir of calm that had helped her fool Councilors. "I try not to make a habit of doing what others expect."
"So you want to put a bull's-eye on your back instead?" He gave her the organizer, lazy tone disappearing to expose the predator within. "You really don't give a shit about your son, do you?"
A sharp stroke of pain, deep, so deep within that secret part where Keenan had lived and where there was now a gaping wound. The brutal strength of it caught her unawares, annihilating her hard-won calm. "It's the only way I know to protect him." He was her baby, her precious little man.
Dorian's leopard pounced on the weakness in her armor. She'd made a mistake at f**king last. "You told me he didn't matter. That he was a commodity."
A slow blink and he could almost see her scrambling to regroup. "No," he said, gripping her forearms and forcing her to look up. "You don't get to do that." Not with him. If he was going to be held hostage to this unwanted compulsion, then she was damn well coming along for the ride. "You don't get to hide behind Silence."
"How do you plan to enforce that dictate?" she shot back, unflinching. "I've been threatened by Councilors. What do you think you can do to me that they couldn't? That they didn't?"
The verbal volley took him by surprise. "Don't you dare compare me to those murdering bastards!"
"There's violence in your eyes when you look at me," came the quiet but pitiless response. "Even when you turn on the charm, the violence remains, simmering beneath the surface. Something about me antagonizes you."
He gritted his teeth. "I had you in my sights two months ago. I could've shot you then. I didn't." And it had been a choice. The part of him that needed her to live had overruled the cold calculation of the sniper who saw her as a threat. "Unless and until you betray DarkRiver, I won't ever lay a hand on you in anger."
Her eyes went to the hands he had on her right then.
"Am I hurting you?" he asked when she stayed silent. "You brought it up, now answer the f**king question." Knowing he was crossing a line, but unable to pull back, he stepped so close that her br**sts brushed against his chest with every indrawn breath. "Am. I. Hurting. You?"
"No." A toneless response. "But it wouldn't take much to push you into a killing rage."
He let go, so furious with her that his leopard tried to growl through his human vocal cords. It made his voice half-animal when he said, "One of your people, one of your Councilors, killed my baby sister. Santano Enrique was the perfect Psy, Silent to the max." A mocking laugh. "So yeah, your presence, your Silence - how did you put it? - antagonizes me."
She went preternaturally quiet, prey in the direct path of a predator.
That just enraged the leopard further. Shaking with the brutality of his emotions, he strode out of the bathroom and to the living room. He had to get away from her before he did something unforgivable. Because that woman in there, the one who for some uncomprehensible reason drew him like a moth to a flame, she didn't have the first clue about how to deal with the trapped leopard inside of him. Contact, be it good or bad, physical or emotional, was the lifeblood of changelings.
Dorian knew he needed such contact more than most. He'd healed from the torture of his sister's murder, but Kylie's death and the blood-soaked aftermath had forever changed him. There was a darkness inside him now, an angry, vicious thing that he kept under control only by sheer force of will.