Unprepared for the shift, she took a stumbling step backward. Her palms hit the wall.
"Why the wrongness in your scent, Talin?"
"I don't know."
She was about to repeat her answer when she realized it would be a lie. Her mouth snapped shut. "As long as you can live with it, what does it matter?"
He was a barricade in front of her, an impenetrable mass of stubborn male muscle. Instead of increasing her fear, the display of unvarnished dominance made her anger spike. "No," she said. "Stop being a bully."
His face reflected surprise. "Wrong answer." He came closer.
She went to duck out of the way but he'd already moved to trap her against the wall, his hands palms down on either side of her body. She felt her heart rate speed up, her own palms start to sweat. "Intimidation is hardly going to make me more inclined to tell you."
He leaned down until his face filled her vision. A long, still pause. "Boo."
She jumped at the husky whisper and hated herself for it. "Not nice."
"According to you, I'm a rampaging monster."
"No, I never - " She shook her head. "I can't help what my mind feels, Clay."
"Why not?" she snapped. "It's my coping mechanism. Deal with it."
"It's nothing but a pile of shit." He pressed even closer, the heat of him an almost physical caress. "And baby, if you're coping, then I'm Mother Teresa. Now, what the f**k is wrong with you?"
"I'm sick!" she yelled. "Dying! There, happy now?"
Clay went so motionless she couldn't even hear him breathe. Her frustrated anger disappeared, to be replaced by a sense of slow horror. She hadn't meant to tell him, didn't want him motivated by pity. "Just forget it. It has no bearing on anything."
He growled at her again and this time it was for real, a low rumbling sound that made her clutch at the wall, even as something long buried inside of her stirred in wary interest. "Stop it," she said, pushing at his chest. It was like trying to shift a steel wall. He was hard, warm...beautiful. "Clay."
"Forget it?" His voice wasn't quite human. "Forget it?"
She wanted to stroke him, had some mad idea it would calm him. Dropping her hands, she pressed her palms back against the wall. "There's nothing you can do," she stated in the face of his aggression. "Remember when I used to get sick as a kid?"
Black clouds rolled across his face. "I remember."
"Not that kind of sick," she said quickly, knowing he was recalling the secrets she'd kept in a childish effort to protect him from her shame. "I used to faint, and sometimes I'd have odd patches of lost memory, when usually I remember everything?"
He nodded. "But you always remembered those things in a few days' time."
"I never grew out of that." She was referring to the diagnosis of the harried doctor who had performed her mandatory childhood health checks. "It's gotten worse year by year. When I lose consciousness, I stay that way for longer periods. The memories sometimes don't come back at all."
His eyes went even more impossibly cat. "Who told you you were dying?"
"Three different specialists." She had gone to them four months ago, after losing most of a day to a fugue state. Things had only gone downhill from there. So much so that, after she found Jonquil, she planned to resign from her position at Shine. "They all agreed my brain's not working properly. It's almost as if I have something eating away at my cells."
"You see an M-Psy?"
She shook her head.
"Why not? They're no humanitarians, but M-Psy can diagnose things far more accurately than normal doctors."
"I didn't want to - they rub me the wrong way." Her skin began to creep with dread every time she came near an M-Psy. "The other doctors were certain the Psy probably wouldn't be able to help anyway."
She didn't bother to argue - she could almost feel her brain dying, step by excruciating step. It wasn't something anyone could stop. "Our first focus has to be on finding Jon," she said. On that one point, she would not compromise. "I can wait."
The skin along his jawline strained white over bone. "How long before you go critical?"
"It's hard to predict." Not technically a lie. The doctors' estimates had ranged from six to eight months. None of the three had differed in their actual diagnosis: Unknown neural malignancy with potential to cause extensive cell death. Risk of eventual fatal infarction - one hundred percent. "Even if I knew the date of my death to the day, Jon comes first." Not even Clay could sway her from that goal.
He pushed off the wall, temper evident in every rigid line of his body. "Go set yourself up on the third floor."
She stayed in place. "Do I look like a dog? 'Go set yourself up on the third floor,'" she mimicked, dangerously aware she was provoking the leopard.
"You look like an exhausted, idiotic woman," he snapped. "Would you rather I yell at you for the next hour like I want to?"
"Why would you yell?"
"You should've come to me years ago." He turned from her, hands fisted, and she knew they were no longer talking about the disease eating at her from the inside out. "I might have been able to forgive the girl for running."
But he couldn't forgive the woman. "And the men?" she asked, knowing she was ringing a death knell over any hope of a renewed friendship between them. "Can you forgive me that?"