His shoulders firmed, the intelligence in his eyes a razor. “They can’t do that if you’re out of the Net. We’ll figure out a way to f**king rebuild your shields once you’re safe.”
He was fighting for her, she thought with a wrench deep inside of her. Never had anyone fought for her. She’d never been important enough. It broke what fragile defenses she might’ve still had—she couldn’t, wouldn’t, hold back the final truth. “Without the biofeedback my mind needs from the Net,” she began, “I’ll die within seconds.” Realizing she’d somehow shredded the entire lettuce, she began to peel the cucumber on the counter.
“Sascha isn’t dead.” Max pushed back from the counter, folding his arms across his chest. “Neither are the other Psy in DarkRiver.”
“Yes, they’ve found an exit route.” Finished with the peeling, she began to slice the cucumber into precise, thin slices. “However, even should such an exit be open to other Js, I couldn’t take it.”
A silent pause, his thrumming anger a whip against her skin.
“I function as a minor anchor.” Sophia knew she shouldn’t be speaking of this. The agony spearing through her nerves, a conditioned response, told her it was deeply forbidden. But she wanted, needed, Max to understand.
“Keep talking.” It was an order.
Part of her wanted to rebel, but she knew she’d pushed him too far—anything more might destroy this bond between them, this beautiful thing that had never been meant for someone so broken—but that she refused to give up. Max was her gift. “Anchors are literally that,” she said, fighting the pain with the stubborn possessiveness inside of her. “They’re born with the ability to merge into the PsyNet itself. They help keep it stable and are almost always cardinals.”
Max tapped the counter in front of her. Jerking up her head, she saw him holding out a hand. “Knife.”
She gave it to him, realizing the cucumber was now in hundreds of tiny, tiny squares. “Oh.”
No shrug, no smile that revealed the lean dimple in his cheek. The loss speared through her. She’d seen human and changeling women coax their men into smiles, but had never imagined she might one day need to do the same. Or that she’d so desperately want to. Getting off the stool, she wiped her hands on a towel. “Max—”
“No.” He pinned her with his gaze. “So help me, Sophie, I’m so f**king mad at you right now—” He blew out a breath. “Help me set the table.”
She gave in, aware for the first time that Max’s relentless will would, of course, translate into an inexorable kind of anger. Neither of them spoke again until they were seated across from each other, their meals in front of them. Morpheus appeared out of nowhere to sit on her feet.
“Don’t feed him,” Max said. “He’s getting fat.”
She gave him an innocent look even as she discreetly dropped a piece of bread for the cat—who seemed to have a strange predilection for it. “Of course not.”
A glint of amusement lit the cold fire in his eyes. “If”—he sat back, a tiger momentarily at rest—“anchors are usually cardinals, why are you doing their job?” His biceps drew her eye as he clasped his hands at the back of his head.
It was difficult to think past the compulsion she had to get up and peel Max’s T-shirt off his body, long-dormant instincts awakening to tell her that touch would reach him far faster and deeper than words ever could.
“You don’t get to play”—a low, dark voice—“until you’re straight with me. Then we’ll talk about punishment.”
Her toes curled. “Cardinals,” she managed to say through the crashing wave of need, “are rare, and cardinals who can be anchors are even rarer.” Agony spiked out of nowhere, wiping out the other sensations. There was, it seemed, one thread of conditioning still active in her—the Council did not like Psy speaking about the critical network of anchors.
“However, non-cardinal individuals can sometimes develop the ability to merge with the Net.” She gripped her knees tight in order to ride out the increasing waves of pain. “We’re not true anchors—more like . . . small weights on the net, helping to keep it in shape, in place. There aren’t enough true anchors to do everything.”
Morpheus patted her foot with a paw. Glad for the touch of reality, she snuck him another piece of bread as Max spoke. “Now that doesn’t make sense. No self-supporting ecosystem would effectively cripple itself.”
She blinked, having never thought of it that way. While she was still trying to figure out how the shortage could have occurred, Max forked up a bite of rice, lifted it to her lips.
She opened her mouth without thought, let him feed her. The feel of the tines sliding out from between her lips was a cool, slow pleasure. “Why did you do that?” she asked after swallowing the unexpected bite. “I thought you were angry with me?”
A faint smile. “I find myself fascinated by your mouth. The things I’d like to do to it . . . Even when I’m furious, you make me crazy, J.”
A brush of heat across her body, a physiological reaction she didn’t quite understand . . . but one that wiped out the pain. Oh. She looked at him, at her cop. “How did you know?” About the pain, about the hurt.
“Because I know you.” The sensual teasing disappeared from his face. “Now tell me why anchors can’t leave the Net.”