"I'm tough." His voice was sandpaper over rock. "You hold on however hard you damn well want."
She took him at his word. "Amara began to bury me. Some of the dirt fell through the cracks where the light had been coming through, and crumbled over my face, my body. Then one of the planks broke over my leg... and I shattered."
The past and the present had melded, until she was sure the earth was closing around her, smothering her in a wave of violent tremors. "I screamed, begged, promised to do anything she wanted if she'd only let me out." Her entire body shook with the memories and she felt the constant cord of her connection to Amara begin to gain in strength. But still, her sister continued to be blocked out.
By chaos touched with feral protectiveness.
She was a psychic being - she knew that that strange shield was connected to Dorian, to what he made her feel. She tried to follow the thought, but terror sucked her under. "I shredded my hands, ripped off my nails trying to get out. My own blood dripped onto my face until the iron of it was all I could smell."
Dorian's hand tightened on her nape. "Listen to my heartbeat, Shaya. Focus."
Trapped as she was in the madness of that grave, his words made no sense, but because he'd said them in such a commanding tone, she obeyed. The beat was hard, steady, certain. A lifeline. "She left me in there for... a long time." Her voice broke. "I was conscious the entire time."
"Jesus, baby, why didn't you ask for help - you're Psy. You could've telepathed someone."
"I was so phobic, Dorian. It was literally my worst nightmare come true. At first, I simply wasn't rational enough to telepath." She'd become a primal being, terror her lifeblood. "And later... she's smart, Amara. She locked me inside her own shields while I was unconscious. I could've smashed my way out, but by the time I realized what she'd done, I was also thinking logically enough to know that I couldn't ask anyone."
Dorian muttered a few choice words. "Because if you'd asked for help, they'd have punished you, too. For breaking Silence."
"Yes." She pressed herself deeper into the living warmth of him, so strong, so safe. "At that age, we were valued but not invaluable. They would've rehabilitated us in a second, wiping our minds until we were little more than walking vegetables. I knew to survive, I had to wait Amara out. And... I knew some of it was my fault."
A growl that sounded very, very real.
"Listen." She fisted her hand against him. "She was always a little different, but most geniuses are - even in the Net. Things really only began to deteriorate after my claustrophobia developed. My emotional control or lack of it feeds her instability. That's part of why I became so good at hiding my emotions. Even inside my own mind, I had to believe the lie - anytime I slipped, Amara degenerated."
Both Dorian's arms came around her, unbreakable steel bands. "If she's that smart, she has to know the triggers, too. But she's let you be the one to carry the weight. Enough, Shaya." The leopard was still in his voice, rough and protective. "You're not to blame."
Shuddering, she buried her face against him. "I have to stop." The memories were sucking her under, taking her back to that grave. "I'm not strong enough to do this."
"You stood up to a sniper - most people start running when they see me." Hard words, but his fingertips were tracing the shell of her ear with utter gentleness.
She'd never expected tenderness from her sniper. It kept startling her. "Probably because tales of your meanness precede you."
"That's my girl." Pride overlaid with a raw kind of possessiveness. "You've kept it inside you long enough." Lips brushing over her hair, a firm hand stroking down her back. "It's time to let it go."
She wondered what it would be like to have that extraordinary strength of will always by her side. Dorian would never surrender, no matter what.
"Why did you stay conscious?" he asked. "How?"
"She was in my head the entire time." The memory of violation caused bile to rise in her throat. "She'd been doing that since childhood. That's why my shields are pretty much impenetrable under normal circumstances" - when she wasn't drowning in emotion - "sheer self-defense."
"And the intrusions weren't picked up when you were younger?"
It was a good question. "Most telepathic children slip in and out of younger siblings' minds until around the age of two. With twins that goes both ways. It's an accepted part of a Psy child's development - it teaches us shielding, and most kids stop spontaneously when the time comes."
"They learn it's not an acceptable thing to do," Dorian said. "Like cubs learning it's not okay to bite or claw."
Ashaya nodded. "Amara never made that cognitive leap - to her, we're not two people at all."
"Obviously, you learned to block her, or you wouldn't have developed a personality."
"You're extremely intelligent." Not many non-Psy would've understood the consequences of such long-term telepathic interference.
"No way. I'm here for the beer and the babes." The tone was pure California surfer. "Now, stop stalling." And the lethal DarkRiver sentinel was back.
Anyone who fell for that harmless act, she thought, deserved what they got. "You're right. If a child is psychically directed from an early age, that child becomes nothing more than a shadow, a living echo of the controlling personality. I was lucky because Amara never did anything when we were young. She just liked being with me all the time."
"You're the stronger personality," he said quietly. "You could've controlled her."