"Maybe, maybe not," was the enigmatic response. "But, Talin, those shields of yours? They're the kinds of shields traumatized children develop."
Talin took a physical step back from that gentle, so gentle, voice. It was a voice that made her want to cry and scream and trust. "Don't try to manipulate me."
"I'm not." There was only truth in those eerie night-sky eyes. "I'm a mind-healer. If you ever decide you deserve to be forgiven for whatever it is you think you've done, I'll be there for you."
"It's no use," she said, tone flat. "I'm dying." Time ran faster with every second.
The cardinal shook her head in quiet reproof. "Some wounds should be healed, no matter how much time has passed or how much time is left."
Talin stared at the floor, barely able to see through the swirling darkness of memory, pain, and a savage need that threatened to destroy her world. "After," she whispered, not knowing why she made even that concession. "After." After they found Jon. "Maybe."
Clay followed Lucas enough of a distance that the women had privacy, but the lair remained in their line of sight. "Thanks for coming so quickly." He'd made the call after sending Talin upstairs when they had first arrived home.
"You would've done the same." Lucas took a seat on the forest floor, bracing his back against a nearby tree trunk.
Clay took the same position forty-five degrees to the left, a position that allowed him to watch the lair as they talked. But neither of them said anything for several minutes. Leaves rustled, smaller animals went about their business, the sky hung a heavy gray crisscrossed with forest green.
"She's the one," Lucas said into the whispering quiet.
"You see the future now? You going to tell me she's my one true love next?" Flippant words but they cut like shards of glass.
Lucas snorted. "No. I meant she's the one you said Faith reminded you of back when you two first met. I'm right, aren't I?"
Clay had snarled at Faith that day, almost gotten into a fight with Vaughn because of it. "Yeah. There's not much resemblance aside from the height." Faith was a redhead to Talin's brunette, Psy to her human. "But they're both stubborn and - " He shook his head. "They're nothing alike. Maybe I just wanted to see what I saw."
"Maybe," Lucas agreed. "You've been hung up on this Talin for a long time. Thing like that can drive a man a little crazy."
Clay had never spoken to Lucas about Talin. He stayed silent now, too.
Lucas stretched out one leg, braced his arm on the one that remained bent at the knee. "I don't know her, but I know you. And I know when a man's got demons chasing him."
"The pack women like you, actively seek you out. I don't know why the hell they bother." He grinned. "It's not as if you're pretty like Dorian."
Clay growled but his mood lightened. Ribbing Dorian about his surfer-dude looks was a familiar pastime. "What's your point?"
"That you've never been in a single stable partnership."
"Luc, you're a f**king gossip."
A bark of laughter. "I'd be a bad alpha if I missed the fact that one of my best men, one of my sentinels, had never gone possessive over a female, not even a little bit."
"You never did either until Sascha."
"Exactly." Lucas's tone hid nothing of what he felt for his mate. "You were all over Talin."
"What's between us isn't anything simple." Too much history, too much pain, too many secrets. Zeke got desperate when I still wouldn't talk... He bet Zeke had never figured out the real truth of why Tally had stopped talking. Clay knew. And it tore him apart all over again. "She f**king turns me inside out."
"Women who matter have a way of doing that." Lucas scowled. "We sound like a couple of women, talking about feelings. I think Sascha's having a bad influence on me."
"You started it." But the discussion had given him the time he needed to wipe away the crap clogging up his mind. "She's asked my help on something." He laid out the facts about the disappearances. "I'll need time off my regular duties." He didn't ask permission because that wasn't how their pack worked. Lucas had chosen his sentinels because of their strength. They were all perfectly capable of running the show if things went wrong.
It said something about Luc that not one of those other dominant cats had ever challenged his rule. Clay had never even considered it - he was too used to walking alone, and an alpha was the physical and emotional center of his pack. "You want me to talk to Cian about the roster?"
"I'll organize it," Lucas offered. "Kit can do some of the easy stuff - it'll be good for his training." He was referring to the tall, auburn-haired juvenile who held the scent of a future alpha. "I'd pair him up with Rina, but he might see having his big sister around as a sign that we don't trust him."
Clay thought about it for a while. "If you switch my watch routes so the experienced soldiers do the outlying territory, Cian can run with Kit, show him the ropes." The older man was both strong and patient. "He'd still be a sentinel if he hadn't decided he preferred being a trainer and advisor."
Lucas made a sound of agreement. "Should work. Kit knows Cian's the one who trained me, so there can't be any cries of babying him." Another silence as they listened to the rhythms of the forest, their animal halves content. "Your Talin, she's human. Fragile."
And Clay, despite his control - control great enough that it was all most people ever saw - was brutally physical, even for a changeling. "I won't hurt her."