"Oh." She bit her lower lip. "DarkRiver taught you about being a leopard?"
He threw her a sidelong glance and it was nothing friendly. "Why the sudden need for conversation? Just spit out what you want. Sooner you do, sooner you can disappear back into the hole where you've been living for twenty damn years."
"You know what? I'm no longer sure I came to the right man," she snapped back, reckless in the face of his aggressiveness.
The air inside the car filled with a sense of incipient threat. "Why? Because I'm not as easy to handle as you remember? Your pet leopard."
She burst out laughing, her stomach hurting with the force of it. "Clay, if anyone followed anyone, it was me tagging along after you. I didn't dare order you around."
"Load of shit," he muttered, but she thought she heard a softening in his tone. "You f**king made me attend tea parties."
She remembered his threat before the first one: Tell anyone and I'll eat you and use your bones as toothpicks.
She should've been scared, but Clay hadn't had the "badness" in him. And even after a bare three years on the planet, she'd known too much about the badness, could pick out which grown-ups had it. Clay hadn't. So, wide-eyed, she'd sat with him and they had had their tea party. "You were my best friend then," she said in a quiet plea. "Can't you be my friend now?"
"No." The flatness of his response shook her. "We're here."
She looked out of the windscreen to find them in a small clearing. "Where?"
"You wanted privacy. This is private." Extinguishing the lights and engine, he stepped out.
Having no choice, she followed suit, stopping in the middle of the clearing as he went to lean against a tree trunk on the other side, facing her. His eyes had gone night-glow, shocking a gasp out of her. Dangerous, he was definitely dangerous. But he was beautiful, too - in the same way as his wild brethren.
"Why did you bring me here?"
"It's in DarkRiver territory. It's safe."
She folded her arms around herself. Though the early spring air was chilly, that wasn't what made her search for comfort. It was the cold distance Clay had put between them, telling her what he thought of her without words.
And she knew she'd brought it on herself. But she couldn't pretend. What she'd seen Clay do had traumatized her eight-year-old mind into silence for close to a year. "You were brutal," she found herself saying instead of asking for what she wanted, the reason she'd fought the vicious truths of the past and tracked him down. She needed him to understand, to forgive her betrayal.
"You were my one point of safety, the one person I trusted to never lose himself in anger and hurt me," she persisted in the face of his silence. "Yet you ended up being more violent than anyone else. How could I help but wonder if the violence wouldn't be directed at me one day, huh, Clay?"
His growl raised every hair on her body.
Run! her mind screamed.
Talin didn't run. She was through with running. But her heart was a drumbeat in her throat.
"You always knew what I was," Clay said, tone full of a bone-deep fury. "You chose not to think about it, chose to pretend I was what you wanted me to be."
"No." She refused to back down. "You were different before." Before he'd discovered what Orrin had done. Before he'd killed to keep her safe. "You were - "
"You're making up fairy tales." The harshest of rejoinders. "The only thing different about me was that I treated you like a kid. You're not a kid anymore."
And he wasn't going to sheathe his claws, she thought. "I don't care what you say. We're still friends."
"No, we're not. Not when you're quaking in your boots at the sight of me. My friends don't look at me and see a monster."
She couldn't say anything to that. She did fear him, maybe more than she feared anyone else on this planet. Clay had almost destroyed her once, was the sole person who could do that even now. "I'm sorry." Sorry that her weakness had made him a murderer, sorry that she wasn't strong enough to get past what she'd seen in that blood-soaked room. Sorry that she'd come here.
She wasn't sorry about finding him. "I missed you." Every single day without him, she had missed him. Now, he was a shadow in the darkness. All she could see clearly were those cat eyes of his. Then she sensed him move and realized he'd crossed his arms. Closing her out.
"This isn't going to work," she whispered, conscious of something very fragile breaking inside of her. "It's my fault, I know." If she had come to him at eighteen, he might have been angry at what she'd done, but he would have forgiven her, would have understood her need to grow strong enough to deal with him. But she had waited too long and now he wasn't hers anymore. "I should go back."
"Tell me what you want, then I'll decide." The roughness of his voice stroked over her in a disturbingly intimate caress.
She shivered. "Don't give me orders." It was out before she could censor herself. As a child, she had learned to keep her opinions to herself. It was far safer. But half an hour with Clay - a Clay who was almost all stranger - and she was already falling into the old patterns between them. He was the one person who'd gotten mad if she had kept her mouth shut, rather than the other way around. Maybe, she thought, a bright spark of hope igniting, maybe he hadn't changed in that way. "I'm not a dog to be brought to heel."
A small silence, followed by the sound of clothes shifting over skin. "Still got a smart mouth on you."