"My conditioning may have malfunctioned once or twice," she said, since he'd caught her lapses, "but it's now repaired. I'm fully enmeshed in Silence."
"Liar. You're hiding behind the conditioning like a scared child."
She held her ground. "Believe that if you want. It doesn't change the truth."
He snorted. "You know what, Ashaya, I thought you had a heart of f**king ice the first time I met you" - he leaned so close, his breath whispered across the curls that had escaped the knot at the back of her head - "but I never took you for a coward."
For a moment, claustrophobia retreated under the thundering force of a clean, bright wave that fired energy through her body. It undermined every one of her efforts to keep Amara at bay, but for that single instant, she didn't care. "What right do you have to call me anything? You, with your prejudice and your self-pity."
Golden skin pulled taut over his cheekbones. "Careful, sugar. I'm not real nice when I'm pissed."
"How would I know the difference? You've been unpleasant to me every chance you get. If that's the result of a lifetime of emotion," she said, deliberately coating each word with frost, "then I prefer Silence."
The door to the balcony swung open, hitting Dorian on the shoulder. He didn't turn, but Ashaya glanced over - to meet the vivid green eyes of a man with savage clawlike markings on one side of his face. He raised an eyebrow. "Takes most people a few days at least to get Dorian that close to a killing frame of mind. You have talent, Ms. Aleine."
Dorian growled low in his throat, warning Lucas to back off. This was between him and Ashaya. "What the hell are you doing here?" He took his hands off the railing on either side of Ashaya and shifted so the door could be pushed fully open.
His alpha leaned against the wall opposite the door, looking like a f**king CEO with his dark gray suit and crisp white shirt. And a tie. Jesus H. Christ. "I just had some information come through," Lucas said, "thought Ms. Aleine might be interested."
Dorian shifted to place himself between Lucas and Ashaya. He saw Luc note the move, and knew the other man understood the way of things when he kept his distance, though he spoke directly to Ashaya. "We need to get you to a safe house. That broadcast didn't declaw the beast."
Some of the anger riding Dorian shifted into steely focus. "You sound sure."
Lucas jerked his head in the direction of the subbasement. "Follow me."
Dorian moved to let Ashaya brush past him. When she hesitated at going down the steps, he leaned in to whisper in her ear. "Want to stay up here with me, instead?"
"I'd rather eat dirt."
The cat liked that acerbic response. So did the man. Biting back a smile, he followed her down into the now empty studio. Only one of the control screens was on, the image paused. "This transmission came through in bits and pieces through various networks," Lucas said. "The fact it got through at all, given the current state of communications, speaks for itself." Without further explanation, he touched the screen and the recording began to play. Images of smoke and debris, the reporter shouting through a face mask.
"... massive underground explosion in... ebraska. Possible covert... facility. Casualities..." - crackling white noise, but the last words were clear - "We're told there was no time to warn anyone of the malfunction. There were no survivors."
Dorian watched as Ashaya reached forward, rewound the broadcast, and watched it again. And again. He gripped her wrist when she would've done it a third time, aware it was her former lab that had been buried - he recognized the area from the mission to rescue Jon and Noor.
Her bones were fragile under his as she stood there unresisting, the complete opposite of the woman who'd shoved at him bare minutes ago.
"Ekaterina was in there." Her voice was as cool as always but he felt the finest of tremors beneath her skin. "You met her, interrogated her."
Dorian recalled the blonde at once. "Shit. She was one of yours."
"Most of them were mine. And that's why they died." She looked at the screen, eyes strangely flat. "I'm responsible for this. If I had run - "
" - they'd have hunted you down like a rabid dog." Of that, Dorian had no doubt. The Council maintained its power by coldbloodedly wiping out any opposition. Except, most of the time, it was done in darkness and shadow, with assassins and poisons. "All you did was bring their bullying tactics out into the open."
Ashaya didn't answer him, her gaze locked on the screen.
Dorian closed the car door behind Ashaya's still figure and turned to Lucas. "If she wasn't Psy, I'd say she was in shock." Though the window was down, Ashaya gave no indication of having heard him.
Lucas narrowed his eyes. "Might help if she sees her son."
"Any change since this morning?" Protective instincts rose to the fore.
"I talked to Sascha before that transmission came through. She said he seems okay, but quiet. Even Tally couldn't get him to talk and she can get anyone to open up."
"Don't call her Tally in front of Clay," Dorian said, thinking of the small human female who loved Clay so desperately. "He's a little territorial."
Lucas's eyes flicked to Ashaya. "So are you."
Dorian wanted to bare his teeth, warn Lucas off against interfering. "Yeah, I am."
"I know better than to step in between," Lucas said, as they both moved far enough away that Ashaya couldn't hear them. "But you might be better off gaining some distance so you can think - right now, your aggression levels are through the roof."