His chest rumbled, and then, for the first time in what seemed like forever, he laughed. Delighted, she grinned. And when her spine twisted under a fresh wave of pain, she tried not to let him know. But he did. Of course he did.
"Hold on, baby," he whispered against her temple. "Hold on."
She tried . . . but Ming had stolen that from her, too. Her arm muscles spasmed and fell silent. Inside her chest, she could feel her heart laboring to beat another beat. The bastard had won. She was dying. But she'd do it on her own terms.
Reaching up with an effort that had Dev bracing her neck, she brushed her lips against his jaw. "Let me go, Dev."
They both knew he couldn't stop her. The link to the Net - her lifeline - was inside her mind, a deeply personal thing. And yet they both also knew she wouldn't take that step until he gave her permission. Because she understood him. If she did this, if she left him without a final good-bye, Dev's rage would destroy him from within. "I need to know you've made your peace with this."
He squeezed her nape in gentle reproof. "I'll never make peace with this."
"Forget it, Katya." A stubborn line to his jaw that she knew too well. "It's never going to happen."
Dropping her head to his chest, she swallowed the tears in her throat. He was strong. And his heart, it was breaking. She could hear it. "I can't live this way," she whispered, knowing she was asking the impossible, knowing, too, that he was strong enough to bear the pain. If he had asked it of her. . . "Ming's out right now, but when he wakes, he'll find me."
"We'll get you out."
"There is no way out." Wrapping her arms around him as well as she could, she soaked in his warmth, his strength . . . his devotion. It was the last that stunned her. This man, this beautiful, strong, powerful man, adored her beyond reason, beyond sanity, beyond anything she'd ever expected. And she had to leave him. "No matter if I survive the physical disintegration, this prison I live in, this darkness that locks me away from the PsyNet, it'll eventually steal my personality, steal everything I am." She'd already felt the hovering edge of a rapacious madness.
"I talked to Ashaya," he said, still fighting for her, her lover with the heart of a warrior prince. "Her sister, Amara, isn't a full part of the neural net that keeps Ashaya alive. If - "
"They're twins, Dev." She'd seen the two interact in the labs, understood something about them she'd never been able to put into words. "And Amara's . . . unique. She probably doesn't care as long as she's connected to Ashaya. My mind is different." And it was starting to crumple under the pressure.
"How close?" he asked, his voice sandpaper rough.
"Link with me when you drop," he ordered. "It's possible we can find a way to give you the biofeedback you need through the ShadowNet."
"No. It won't work."
"We can do it," he said, misunderstanding. "You're a strong telepath and I've got enough telepathy - "
"No," she interrupted, reminding him of the unalterable facts. "The claws he's got in my mind, the spiderweb - there's no way I can pull out safely."
"What if you're wrong, what if you can? Promise me you'll link then."
She shook her head. "There's a chance the spiderweb is designed to spread. What if that's what I am? A true Trojan horse." Meant to infect the ShadowNet with a plague that would stifle all life, snuff out every bright light.
His arms tightened to bruising strength around her. "Viruses can't travel through the fabric of any net. That's been confirmed over and over."
"He did something," she replied, even as she fought the desperate urge to grab the chance at life and hold on with all her might, "and there's no way to know where his evil stopped. We can't play with the lives of your people - what if I come in and we discover that Ming did find a way to engineer a virus that'll survive in the ShadowNet? What then?"
"Ming isn't known to be a viral transmitter."
"No," she acknowledged. "Everyone says only Nikita Duncan can do that. But Councilors keep secrets."
"The risk is low," he argued. "We can quarantine you with shields if necessary."
Her vision blurred in one corner. She kept her face buried against him, somehow knowing it was blood spreading across her eye. "Please, Dev. Let me go."
Dev could have withstood anything except that soft, sweet plea. She was hurting. His Katya was hurting, and though she tried to hide it from him, he knew damn well she was starting to lose more and more control over her body. This, now, was her chance to go out on her own terms, with the dignity and grace Ming had tried to steal from her. Cupping the back of her head, he buried his face in her neck and felt his body shatter from the inside out.
She held him as he broke, her arms so very gentle. A kiss pressed to his cheek. "I love you, Dev."
"I'll never forgive you." It was torn out of his soul.
He went to raise his head but she held him to her. "No. I don't want you to see me like this."
"You'd be beautiful to me no matter what."
"That's what they all say. But leave me a little vanity."
How could she make him smile even now? Stroking his hand over her hair, he pressed his lips to her temple. "Go then, mere jaan." My life. Because that was what she was. The best part of him. "Just remember - the next ten or so lifetimes, you're spending with me."
"Yes, sir." A final, sweet touch of her lips.