She blinked. Then again, as if it took great effort. Her hands started to shake. Grabbing the mug before she dropped it, he put it to the side. "Tally, damn it, you come back to me right this second."
Lines appeared on her brow. "Don't...give...me orders." She shook her head, reminding him of a kitten shaking off wet. "Clay?"
"I'm here." He wanted to hold her but was terrified of her reaction. "I'm right here."
Her eyes were scared when she looked at him. "How did I get here? I was at the counter." Panic edged her words, jagged shards that bit into his skin.
"Something happened." He shifted position, sitting down in front of her with his legs bent at the knees, effectively bracketing her curled-up body.
"An episode?" She reached up as if to push back her hair, stopped, curled her hand into a fist, and pressed it to her stomach. "What did I do?"
"Do you remember what we were talking about?"
A pause, then a red flush high on her cheeks. "We didn't - " Her tone was reedy.
"No!" he said immediately. "No, baby. It's only been two or three minutes at most. Look, your chocolate is still hot." He pushed the mug into her hands, needing to do something to get that anguished look off her face.
She closed her fingers around it, sighing in relief. "Sometimes I do things when I'm - " Her face scarred over with the most cruel pain. "Sometimes I wake up in strange rooms. Then I have to go to the clinics and make sure my vaccinations are all up-to-date, and the doctors look at me like I'm a whore." The last word was a broken whisper.
Protective fury clawed at his vocal chords. He fought back the roar by focusing on Tally. "You're safe here. From that kind of abuse at least." Her hurt, lost look was tearing his heart to pieces, the leopard shuddering in pain as the man fought to find the tenderness she needed. "Tell me you know that, baby."
A jerky nod. "I just get so scared because I wake up and there's this black gap where my memory should be. Please - tell me what I did so I don't have to imagine."
"Nothing so bad. You talked like a kid."
That seemed to startle her. "What?"
"You sounded like you were six-years-old."
"Something bad happened that year." Her voice dropped, became a whisper.
He swallowed the leopard's scream of rage - if Tally could live through it, then he could damn well hear it. Because no matter what she said, he'd failed her then. "Have you had this kind of regression before?"
She shook her head. "Not that I know of. One of the specialists had me wear a tracker when the episodes started getting bad. Most of the time - " She swallowed and drank some of her chocolate. "It's sexual. Most of the time it's sexual. Not always sex but acting out. Acting different. Dressing different."
His claws pushed out slowly through his skin. He had to force them to retract. "Is that why all those men?"
Her face was sad. "Don't try and make me innocent again. I'm not. I never was."
"You were a child then. You weren't responsible."
"But I was responsible for my adult actions. And I did sleep around. You can't erase that!" she cried. "These episodes have only gotten so bad in the last year and a half. The doctors call them dissociative states. There are lots of psychological words to describe what just happened but most people recognize it as a fugue."
He knew less than nothing on this subject, felt as if he were scrambling in the dark. Making it worse was that mixed in with his need to protect was this agonizing, vicious fury. God, but he was mad at her, at how she'd mistreated herself. Didn't she know that no one - not even she - had the right to hurt what was his? And Talin was his, had been since that day twenty-five years ago when she'd first dared tangle with a wounded leopard. "Tell me about these fugues," he grit out. "Tell me so I understand."
"I don't know if I do." She gave him the mug to put aside.
He stopped himself from crushing it by the thinnest of margins. "Start with what you do know."
"Okay." She took a steadying breath. "A person in a fugue is on autopilot, that's how the doctors explained it to me. They can walk, talk, even do complex things like drive, but with no conscious control."
He wanted to hold her so bad it hurt, but he kept his distance. "What brings one on?"
She shrugged. "No one really knows definitively. For some people it's a brain imbalance - hormonal, biological, a tumor. For others, it seems related to stress."
"Which is it in your case?"
"I don't know. But the more the disease progresses, the worse they are, so it's probably biological."
"We were fighting pretty hard, Tally." He was disgusted at how he'd stoked the sexual heat between them when he had known it would be too much for her. But the second she had ordered him to back off, the leopard had taken over, furious and so damn possessive he couldn't fight it. He was getting too close to the edge, becoming dangerous. So f**king dangerous. "Enough to stress anyone out."
"Yes." She swallowed, took another deep breath. "The doctors said it might even be a mix of things. The biological problems making me more vulnerable to the psychological - my brain is already compromised so it takes less pressure to effect a fugue."
It was an effort to remain logical. "Were you able to isolate any triggers when you wore the trackers?"
"Not really." She drew up her knees and rested her chin on them, looking strangely childlike. It was unsettling after the regression he'd witnessed only minutes ago. "Sometimes it's nothing. Or it feels like nothing. I once fugued in the middle of a jet-train with people all around. I went shopping like normal, then sat in Central Park for an hour."