"Talk to me." He didn't like seeing her in pain, never had, probably never would. This familiar stranger, this woman who saw him as a monster, was his one f**king fatal weakness and didn't that just suck?
"They found Mickey's body two weeks ago." A tear streaked down her cheek. She dashed it away with a furious swipe. "He was eleven years old, bright, so bright, could remember everything he'd ever read."
"Yeah. Except instead of being abandoned as a baby, he had the bad luck to live with a mother who always chose abusive men." She gave him a smile but it was nothing happy. "He was mine, Clay. I promised him safety and in return, he went to school every day." Tremors shook her frame, whitened her knuckles. "Someone beat him to death. Everything was broken. The bastards pulverized his face - like they were wiping him out!"
Anger shot through his bloodstream. He thought of the children in the pack, of what he'd do to anyone who dared harm them. "One of his mother's men?"
"I might have thought so, but Mickey was at a camp out of state when they took him. And it's not only him we lost." A breath that sounded as if her throat was lined with broken glass. "They found two more bodies this week. At least one more kid remains missing."
The leopard half of his soul - angry, hurt, and still in shock at her return - wanted to go to her. To hold her. Tactile contact, affection as a method of healing, was the way of changelings, something he'd been taught after being pulled into DarkRiver. But Talin was scared of him. She had told him that to his face, and the sharp knife of it was still buried in his heart. The man wasn't sure he wanted to chance another rejection. Keeping the animal's instincts in check, he finally stepped out of the shadows. "Do you want to be held, Talin?"
Her damp eyes widened at the blunt question, then she nodded in a little jerking motion. Something in him quieted, waiting. "Then come here."
A pause during which the entire forest seemed to freeze, the night creatures aware of the leopard's tense watchfulness.
"Oh, God, Clay." Suddenly her arms were wrapped around his back, her cheek pressed against the white cotton of his T-shirt.
Hardly daring to breathe, he closed his own arms around her feminine warmth, blindingly aware of every inch of her pressed into him, every spot of wetness soaking through his T-shirt.
She was so small, so damn soft, her humanity apparent in the delicacy of her skin, the lightness of her bones. The Psy might be fragile in comparison to changelings, but they had powers of the mind to compensate. Humans had the same fragility but none of the psychic abilities. A wave of protectiveness washed over him.
"Shh, Tally." He used the nickname because, at this moment, he knew her. She had always had a heart too big for her body, a heart that felt such pain for others while ignoring its own. "I'll find your lost one."
She shook her head against him. "It's too late. Three bodies already. Jonquil is probably dead, too."
"Then I'll find who did this to them and stop him."
She stilled against him. "I didn't come here to turn you into a killer again."
"I am a killer," he said, unwilling to let her hide from this. "I'm a leopard changeling and in my world, killing to protect your pack is understood and accepted."
"I'm not part of your pack."
"No." So why was he going to help her? Especially after she'd made her opinion of him crystal clear. "No child deserves to die that way."
A small silence. "Thank you." She didn't let go. "You've become so strong."
"I was always strong compared to you." Now he could snap her in two without thinking. It was that difference in strength that had always kept him away from human females. The rare lovers he took were all changeling. He was who he was. And gentleness was not part of his nature. "Unless you've muscled up and it doesn't show on the surface?"
She laughed, a warm, intrinsically feminine sound. "I'm still a shrimp, but you - you've become a leopard."
He understood. She had known him as an angry boy trapped inside the claustrophobic walls of their apartment complex. The lack of clean air had stifled the leopard, wounded him on an elemental level. He hadn't even been able to shift without someone calling the cops to report a wild animal on the loose. Then there was Isla, unable to bear the sight of her son in leopard form.
"Are you happy with DarkRiver?" Talin asked now.
"They're my family, my friends." For Clay, that loyalty meant everything. They accepted him as he was, didn't give a shit that he preferred to roam alone more often than not, invited him into their homes without compunction.
"Who was the blond man with you?"
He stiffened. "Dorian's a sentinel, too." A pretty one according to most women.
"You two were being rough with those boys."
"They earned it. Got drunk and smashed up the bar."
"So you came to take them home." He could hear the smile in her voice. "You look after each other. Your pack, I mean."
"I'll be kicking their asses three ways to Sunday soon as they sober up. We're no Swiss Family Robinson." They couldn't afford to be, especially not now, with the Psy Council attempting to take down the only changeling groups - DarkRiver and SnowDancer - that had dared challenge its absolute rule.
Something made a rumbling sound.
She nodded, but remained plastered to him. "I was so nervous about meeting you, I didn't eat all day."
"If you don't want to piss me off," he snapped, "stop talking about how much I scare you."