The cardinal's face grew pensive. "Will you allow me to see if I can help?"
"He trusts you." Another flood of jealousy. It made her feel small, petty, but she couldn't stop it - she had never been rational where Clay was concerned. "You're Pack."
Sascha sensed Talin's ambivalence, understood it. "Yes." Clay was a leopard who chose the shadows even in the tight circle of the sentinels, but when it came down to it, they were tied together by a bond of deep, unflinching loyalty. "Yes," she repeated.
The curvy brunette across from her bowed her head in a wary nod. "All right."
But try as she might, Sascha found she could do less than nothing. "You have a shield."
"What?" Talin frowned. "But I'm human."
"True." The lack of anything beyond the most basic shields was what made humans the weakest of the three races. That in mind, Sascha tried another push. "But not only do you have shields," she said after being violently rebuffed, "they're airtight."
"I have no idea why that would be."
Sascha raised her hand. "If you don't mind..." The other woman didn't pull away when Sascha went to touch her cheek. Often with changelings, contact made all the difference. But not with Talin. Breaking the connection, Sascha stepped back, her instincts telling her Talin didn't like people too close. Yet it appeared she had already given Clay skin privileges. Intriguing.
"I'm no expert on human mental processes," she said, "but your shields are, without a doubt, unusual. For some reason, your mind has learned to protect itself." Her heart tripped a beat as her own words penetrated. She had heard of these kinds of shields before. They had been noted in an addendum to an old Psy-Med Journal article.
Conclusion: Low incidence in human population. No genetic components.
The latter finding was probably why the Council hadn't gone about eliminating the bearers of such shields. That and the fact that regardless of what the Psy did or didn't do, these particular shields would always occur in a certain percentage of the human population. "The shields," she continued, keeping her tone very gentle, "are so strong, you must've begun constructing them during childhood."
"Why - " Talin froze.
Sascha could no more ignore the waves of emotion coming off her than she could stop breathing. Being an E-Psy meant she had the capacity to sense and neutralize hurtful emotion. It also meant she couldn't just stand by when someone was in that much pain. Now she gathered up Talin's self-hatred, revulsion, and anger - such incredible anger - in her psychic arms and absorbed it inside of herself. She had the gift to turn those destructive emotions harmless, but it hurt.
A few seconds later, Talin gave her a startled look. "What are you?" Not an accusation but the kind of innocent question a child might ask.
It surprised Sascha, given what she suspected this woman had endured. "An empath." She explained what that meant. "I'm sorry if I intruded - I forget to ask sometimes." The gift was too powerful, too instinctive.
"What a pure gift." Talin's face filled with something close to wonder. "Does that mean you'll never be evil?"
"I'm as vulnerable to negative emotions as anyone," Sascha admitted, "but the empathy won't let them fester inside me."
"Like I have?" Talin's gaze was direct. "You don't like me very much, do you?"
Sascha felt a moment's disorientation at the blunt clarity of that question. A sense of shame followed - after everything she had learned in the past year, it was criminal that she'd automatically equated human with weak. Talin was nothing if not strong. "It's not a case of disliking you. I don't know you - how can I judge you?"
"But?" Talin pushed, holding her body in a way that reminded Sascha of the vulnerable pride of the young males in the pack. However, Talin was no child - her emotions were too aged, too flavored with time.
"Clay is one of mine." Even Sascha was surprised at the depth of protectiveness in her tone, an echo of what she so often heard in Lucas's voice when he spoke of Pack. "He's been choosing to walk alone more and more, and it worries me. I was hoping his growing friendship with Faith would change things, bring him back to us."
Talin swallowed, at once resentful of Sascha's right to care about Clay and almost violently glad that he had friends who loved him with such fierce determination. "But now I'm pulling him under."
"Clay leads, rarely follows." The cardinal's words were light, her eyes solemn. "But whatever you are to him, whatever demons you waken, they're already blackening his emotions."
Talin wanted to defend herself but knew Sascha was right - the things she brought with her were the very things Clay had left in the past. "I'm sorry."
"No, you're not." Sascha's gaze was piercing.
Talin felt her jaw tighten. "Don't spy on my emotions."
"I don't have to." The other woman tilted her head a fraction to the side. "You should see the way you watch him. Such hunger, Talin."
Color threatened to fill her cheeks. "Whatever is between us is our business. You have no right to interfere."
Instead of being furious, Sascha smiled, a smile filled with withheld laughter. "Pack is One. Pack is family. Interference is a fact of life. Get used to it."
Talin's anger flatlined into a column of pure guilt. "I really am sorry," she said, shoulders slumping. "I should have stayed away." Clay had made it. She hadn't. End of story. "I had no right to come back into his life."