Dorian met Keenan's eyes. "You make a promise, you don't break it."
Keenan was only four and a half. He swallowed under the force of Dorian's quiet disapproval. "I wanted her to come."
Dorian felt for the kid. But Keenan had put himself into lethal danger. "No excuses," Dorian said, enunciating a rule taught to all cubs in DarkRiver. "If you can't keep a promise, you don't make it."
Keenan struggled to sit up in his mother's arms. After a pause when Ashaya seemed unable to let him go, she allowed him to perch in her lap. But the boy's attention was on Dorian. "I'm sorry."
Dorian raised a brow. "Sorry doesn't wipe the slate clean. You can only do that by keeping your promise from now on." Perhaps he was being harsh but if this was life-and-death, Keenan needed to have that drummed into him. "Can you do that? Can we trust you?"
A quick nod. "Yes. I won't do it again."
"Promise," Ashaya demanded, her voice husky. "Promise me."
Keenan turned to her. "I promise." Then he laid his head against her shoulder and wrapped his arms around her neck. "I knew you'd come."
After a fragile, frozen moment, Ashaya seemed to crumble. Her hand rose trembling to his head, her body softening and curving in a protective curl. "Oh, Keenan." It was a whisper that held such abiding love that Dorian couldn't believe she'd managed to hide it for so long.
What had it cost her to bury that depth of emotion?
Ashaya knew she'd made what could be a fatal mistake, but she'd stopped thinking like a rational being the instant she'd felt Keenan's withdrawal. She hadn't cared that Amara could exploit the weakness of emotion to burrow into her mind. But now, the fear that Amara had done exactly that, and discovered the fact of Keenan's continued existence, had her checking desperately for any hint of a breach. What she found was something else altogether - a wall of powerful new shields between her and Amara, shields full of color... and chaos. Beautiful and wild, reminding her strangely of Dorian.
A movement in her arms, as Keenan wriggled to a sitting position.
A child, she thought, he was only a child. No one should have to carry the burden that Keenan carried, a burden she'd never been able to shield him from. Because he had to know why there were some secrets he could never whisper, some truths he could never tell.
"Can I go play?" he asked... but not of her.
"Go on." Dorian nodded, pushing back that silky hair of his when it slid onto his forehead. "But stay in the house for now."
"Okay." Scrambling off the bed, he scampered across the floor.
Dorian picked him up before he could reach the door. Keenan made a startled sound, but threw his arms around the changeling male and whispered something Ashaya couldn't catch. It didn't matter. The sharp grin that cut across Dorian's face said everything - her baby boy trusted him. She could almost see the bond between the lethal sniper and the tiny boy he held tight in his arms. It was as solid as rock.
"Try and be good the rest of the day, K-Man." Before putting him back down on his feet, Dorian kissed Keenan on the cheek with an open affection that made her wonder what it would be to have his trust.
"I will." Keenan nodded and headed for the door. But he stopped before opening it, looking over his shoulder at Ashaya. "Are you going?"
She knew she should leave, draw Amara away. But still she said, "No. I'll be here."
A shy little smile. Then, reaching up on tiptoe to twist the knob, he wandered out. Ashaya didn't move from the bed, intensely aware of being watched by Dorian, this male who made her react in ways wholly outside her experience.
The door closed again with a quiet snick. "Ignoring me won't make me go away." A low masculine statement devoid of the mockery she usually heard. Instead there was a dangerous kind of beauty in it - something deeper than charm.
Her instincts snapped awake in wary defense. "I was simply contemplating how to repair this break in my conditioning." She'd been hiding her true self for so long, it was an automatic response.
He sat down bare inches in front of her, a living wall of warm male flesh and intractable leopard will. "Admit it before I make you."
There was no way she could avoid meeting his gaze now. The intimacy of it threatened to steal her breath. "I can hardly deny the truth. My maternal instincts broke through the currently fractured walls of my Silence."
"Bullshit." The harsh word cut through the air with the efficiency of a knife. "Forget the crap about fractures and repairs. We both know you haven't been conditioned in a long time - if ever." He lay back down on his elbows, looking up at her. The pose was relaxed, his eyes anything but.
Ashaya had prepared for this contingency, for being found out so very completely. But her scenarios had all revolved around the Council. Around lies told with a face devoid of emotion. "I suffer from severe claustrophobia," she said, unable to lie to Dorian, but needing to distract him from the one secret no one could learn.
His eyes darkened to a deeper, almost midnight blue. "And the Council let that go?"
"It didn't affect my work," she said. "I was even able to survive in the underground lab - though it was becoming increasingly difficult. I lost sleep, began to be prone to erratic behavior." She was hoping he'd make his own conclusions, but Dorian was too intelligent to be that easily led.
"How long have you been claustrophobic?"
Dirt sliding through the cracks, the most vivid nightmare memory. But it hadn't begun then. "Since I was fourteen. Amara and I were both buried during an earthquake - we were living in Zambia at the time and the structure wasn't earthquake safe. The house literally collapsed on top of us." They'd been encased in a pitch-black nightmare of pain for close to forty-eight hours. Her twin had kept Ashaya sane. And that was both an irony... and the chain that tied her hands.