"Don't lie to me." It was a lethal warning. "You were scared so you ran."
"I'm telling the truth." She swallowed. "But yes, I was scared, too. You didn't see what I saw, Clay. That day in Orrin's bedroom, you turned into someone I didn't know, someone more vicious than anyone I'd ever known." She waited for him to say that he'd done it for her, but he didn't. Her guilt intensified. "Why don't you blame me? It would make this so much easier. Blame me, yell at me, God damn it!"
"For what, Talin? What did you do? Be my friend. That was your only crime." He remained unmoving, so much a part of the forest that she could hardly tell where he began and the night ended. "These Larkspurs - why aren't you going to them for help?"
"I brought darkness into that family. I can't bring evil."
"They're your pack, they would stand by you."
She was startled at his word usage. "My pack? No, I don't think they are. I-I was a visitor. I made myself a visitor, left the family at sixteen after getting a full board and study scholarship." Even their name, she had borrowed only until adulthood - long enough to blur the waters and dead-end any search Clay might have mounted. "I never let them in."
"Do you let your pack touch your soul?" she asked, desperate to learn about his new life, his new world, years of hunger coalescing into this single moment.
"DarkRiver cats have a way of adopting you even if you don't particularly want to be adopted." It was a snarl. "If I bleed, they'll come to my aid. They would kill for me."
She shivered at the wild violence of his statement. But there was also a seduction in that kind of loyalty. It made her wonder about bonds of a far different sort. "Do you...do you have someone in your pack?"
He went very still. "I don't scent a mate on you."
"Me?" Her voice came out high, startled. "No. I - No."
He remained silent.
She coughed. "I don't want to get in the way of a relationship by involving you in my problems."
"Leave my relationships to me."
Her insides twisted. "Fine."
Clay waited. Juvie had been hell, but it had taught him to contain emotion, to hold his anger inside until it was needed - then use it like a weapon. The Psy scientists who had come to observe "captive animal behavior" had been his unwitting teachers.
At the time, he'd been the lone predatory changeling under long-term incarceration - changeling packs usually dealt with their own without Enforcement involvement. But not only had Clay not had a pack, he'd crossed a racial boundary in his crime. Orrin had been human.
Yet instead of subjecting him to hard study and learning things - things that could have given the Psy Council an edge in the cold war it was currently waging against the changelings - the Psy had treated him as a curiosity, an animal behind bars. It was the animal who had watched and learned. Now he watched as Talin shifted from foot to foot before folding her arms around herself again.
"I work with kids in San Francisco," she said without warning. "I've been doing it ever since I graduated. But not here. I was in New York until the start of this year."
"Is one of them in danger?" He felt the embers of his fury flare into life at the realization that she'd been in his territory for close to three months. All those times he had caught a hint of her scent in Chinatown or down by Fisherman's Wharf, only to find himself trailing a stranger; he'd thought it a sign he really had gone over the edge.
"Not like that." Dropping her arms, she looked at his eyes, which he'd allowed to go night-glow. "Clay, please. Stop doing the cat thing and come out so I can see your face."
"No." He wasn't ready to show her anything. "Did you know I was in the city?"
"Not at first. I had no way to track you after you got out of juvie." She kicked at the grass. "Then one day, a few weeks ago, I thought I saw you. Drove me crazy - I thought I was hallucinating, making up fantasies of what you would've looked like as an adult."
He didn't respond, despite the near-echo of his earlier thoughts.
She blew out a breath. "I swear - " The abrasive sound of teeth grinding against each other. "I went back to where I thought I'd seen you, realized it was the DarkRiver business HQ, and looked them up on the Internet. I still wasn't sure - there was no photo and you changed your last name to Bennett."
It had been a way to drop off the face of the world, to lose any simmering media attention. But over the years, it had become his name. "We'll talk about you tracking me later," he said, cold fire burning a hole in his gut. "First, tell me why you need my help."
"If you're trying to scare me, it's working. That doesn't mean I'm going to cut and run."
In that bravado-filled challenge, he caught another fleeting glimpse of the girl she'd been. The day they had met, she'd sat there beside him, wide-eyed and terrified to her tiny toes, but stubborn enough not to leave till the paramedics came. "Why not?" he said, shifting his anger into sarcasm. "You're real good at it."
She raised her face to the canopy and took a deep breath, as if trying to hold on to her temper. He wondered if she'd succeed. His Tally had always been very quiet...except with him. He alone had known that she was neither shy nor particularly calm. The girl had a temper like a stick of dy***ite. Quick to heat, quick to blow over.
"Kids are disappearing, not only here but across the country," she now said, her anger red-hot, but no longer directed at him. "At first, they were labeled runaways, but I knew some of them. They weren't that kind." Her shoulders drew up. "Now I have proof I was right, and I wish every night that I didn't." Her voice broke.