Judd understood the need. He’d felt the same helplessness as a child. His entire life had been out of his control, held in the hands of those who wanted only to use him. “Full integration—how long does it take?”
“A year according to the projections,” Bowen said. “After that, the chip will, in essence, become part of the brain stem.”
“So”—Riaz’s tone was quiet, serious—“deciding to put in one of these is a lifetime commitment.”
“Yes.” Bowen rubbed the top of his head, the stubble rasping against his palm. “We did the first five two weeks apart. We’re the controls. If something goes wrong with number one within that grace period, number two has a shot to get the chip out, and so on.”
“You’d be the first to fall.” Adria’s husky voice.
“It’s my job to protect my people.” Pushing his chair back from the table, Bowen stood, hands braced on the table. “Share the information with your pack, and with DarkRiver and WindHaven. If you have human packmates who’re prepared to take the risk, the Alliance is willing to let a certain number of them cut into the queue as a gesture of good faith.”
SIENNA was sitting beside Indigo on the edge of the White Zone, supervising a group of two-year-olds playing in the sandpit while their minders had a coffee break, when the lieutenant said, “You need to start shadowing different members of the pack.”
“Other soldiers, you mean?” Sienna asked, assuming it was an exercise of some kind.
But the taller woman shook her head, her long ponytail brushing against the back of the fitted Western-style white shirt with three-quarter sleeves she’d tucked into her low-slung jeans. “One person from every subgroup in the den, from maternal females to healers, to techs, to mechanics, to domestic operations. Soldiers, you already know. And, it’s not an order,” the lieutenant added, “but a suggestion.”
Sienna took time to think through Indigo’s recommendation, understanding the lieutenant meant far more than she’d actually said. “Like Hawke,” she finally murmured, speaking more to herself than Indigo. “He knows every minute detail of every aspect of the pack.”
“Yes.” One arm hooked easily over the leg she’d drawn up at the knee, her back to a young green pine, Indigo paused to call out encouragement to a couple of little ones who were struggling with their sand pails. “Hold on, I better go help before they bury each other.”
Returning a couple of minutes later, sand on the knees of her jeans and the fading echoes of the wolf’s laughter in her eyes, she settled back into her spot. “Tell me the reason why,” she said, as if their conversation had never been interrupted.
“So I can be his sounding board.” The person with whom he could discuss ideas he wasn’t yet ready to take to his lieutenants. “So I can understand the nuances of the situations he has to handle day in, day out.”
“Smart girl.” Brushing off her knees, the lieutenant turned to look at her. “But that’s not the only reason.”
“It’s for me, too,” Sienna said slowly, grasping what it was Indigo wanted her to see. “To make the journey from novice soldier to … something like a lieutenant”—but not the same, her priority Hawke rather than the pack—“faster and smoother.” Wolves respected strength, and she had that. But she needed more experience, and crucially, she needed the acceptance of the pack when it came to any change in her place in the hierarchy. “The more people I shadow, the more connections I make.”
Indigo’s shoulder brushed her own as the lieutenant nodded. “Every wolf likes to feel appreciated. Hawke does it instinctively—you’ll have to do it more consciously, but in no way does that devalue the commitment you’d be making to know and understand the beating heart of the pack.”
Spoken, Sienna thought, like the protector Indigo was. They were stronger, undeniably more lethal, but all dominants considered themselves in service to the vulnerable in the pack—because without those gentler packmates, there would be no one to protect, no reason for them to exist … no sense of a home colored in affection and warmth. It had taken her years of living with SnowDancer to understand such subtleties. “I think it would be a good idea to start with a dominant maternal female, don’t you?” They wielded as much power as the lieutenants, simply in a different sphere.
Indigo’s glance held open approval and a pride that made Sienna feel as if she’d been given the most lavish praise. “Yes. I think if you ask Lara, she’ll set it up with Ava.”
The tension Sienna hadn’t been aware of feeling until that moment leaked out of her, her shoulders relaxing. She’d met Ava any number of times. Her son, Ben, was one of Marlee’s friends, though the two had recently fallen out—and neither would say what the problem was. “I will.” Drawing in long breaths of the crisp, clean air, she watched a pup in wolf form help his friend complete a sand castle, patting the sand into place with baby paws. “It feels like I’m building the foundations for the rest of my life.”
“Do you mind that?”
“I’m so happy, sometimes I think I’ll burst.” The depth of her joy scared her on occasion. Never had she imagined she’d have a future, a life, beyond the fury of the X-marker. Now that she did … “I’m going to build a foundation so strong, so solid, it won’t ever shake, no matter what the future brings.” No one, not even Ming LeBon, was going to stop her living her life.