Neither could he. "I saw your death certificate." After the first shock had passed, he'd known it for a lie. But..."I need to know that you're real, that you're alive."
This time, when he raised his hand to her cheek, she didn't flinch. But neither did she lean into his touch as she'd always done as a child. Her skin was delicate, honey-colored. Freckles danced across the bridge of her nose and along her cheekbones. "You haven't been staying out of the sun."
She gave him a startled look followed by a shy smile that hit him like a kick to the gut. "Never was much good at that."
At least she hadn't changed in that respect. But so much about her had changed. His Tally had come running into his arms every day for five of the happiest years of his life, looking to him as her protector and friend. Now, she pushed at his hand until he dropped it, the silent reiteration of her rejection searing a cold burn across his soul. It made his voice harsh when he said, "If you hate me so much, why did you find me?" Why couldn't she have left him his memories - of a girl who had seen in him only goodness?
Those memories were all he'd had left in his fight to stay in the light. He had always carried darkness inside his heart but now it beckoned every waking minute, whispering silvery promises of the peace to be found in not feeling, not hurting. Even the powerful bonds of Pack were no longer strong enough to hold him, not when the lure of violence beat at him night and day, hour after hour, second after excruciating second.
Talin's eyes widened. "I don't hate you. I could never hate you."
"Answer the question, Talin." He wouldn't call her Tally again. She wasn't his Tally, the sole human being who had ever loved his misbegotten soul before he'd been dragged into DarkRiver. This was Talin, a stranger. "You want something."
Her cheeks blazed with fire. "I need help."
He could never turn her away, no matter what. But he listened impassively, his tenderness for her threatening to twist into something that wanted to strike out and hurt. If he betrayed the depth of his fury, if he sent her running again, it might just push him over the final deadly edge.
"I need someone dangerous enough to take on a monster."
"So you came to a natural-born killer."
She flinched again, then snapped her spine straight. "I came to the strongest person I've ever known."
He snorted. "You wanted to talk. So talk."
She looked out past his shoulder. "Could we do it somewhere more private? People might drive up here."
"I don't take strangers to my lair." Clay was pissed and when he got pissed, he got mean.
Talin tipped up her chin in a gesture of bravado that sent flickers of memory arcing through his mind. "Fine. We can go to my apartment in San Francisco."
"Like hell." He occasionally worked in DarkRiver's business HQ near Chinatown, but that HQ was built for cats. It didn't hem him in. "I spent four years in a cage." That didn't count the fourteen he'd passed in the small boxlike apartments he and his mother had called home. "I don't do well inside walls."
Naked pain crawled over her features, turning the stormy gray of her eyes close to black and eclipsing the ring of amber fire. "I'm sorry, Clay. You went to prison because of me."
"Don't flatter yourself. You didn't make me rip out your foster father's guts or tear off his face."
She pressed a hand to her stomach. "Don't."
"Why not?" he pushed, a caustic mix of anger and possessiveness overwhelming his fiercely protective instincts where Tally was concerned. Again, he reminded himself that this woman wasn't his Tally, wasn't the girl he'd have split his veins to keep safe. "I killed Orrin while you were in the room. We can't ignore it like it never happened."
"We don't have to talk about it."
"You used to have more spine."
Color flooded her cheeks again, bright against the fading daylight. But she took a step forward, anger vibrating through her frame. "That was before I had a man's blood spray across my face, before my head filled with his screams and a leopard's roars."
A predatory changeling could hunt in complete quiet - in either human or animal form - but he had felt such rage that day that the animal in him had risen totally to the surface. For those blood-soaked minutes, he'd been a human insane, a leopard on two feet. They had had to shoot an overdose of animal tranqs into him to pull him off Orrin Henderson's mutilated body.
The last thing he'd seen as he lay on the floor, his face pressed into still-warm blood, was Tally curled up in a corner, face flecked with blood and other things, pink and fleshy...and gray, lumps of gray. Her eyes had looked through him, her freckles stark dots against the chalk white skin visible between all that red. Some of the blood had been her own. Most had been Orrin's.
"You used to have more freckles on your cheeks," he commented, caught in the memory. It wasn't horrifying to him. He was animal enough not to care about anyone outside of his pack, especially not those who dared harm his packmates. Back then, Tally and Isla had been the sole members of his pack. He'd always known he would kill to protect either of them.
"Don't change the subject."
"I'm not. Your face was the final thing I saw on the outside." He brushed a finger over those freckles of hers. "They must've faded or moved as you grew up."
"No, they didn't," she snapped, and - for the first time - sounded exactly like the girl he'd known. "They've multiplied, spread. Damn things."
"You own them now," he said, amused as always by her antipathy toward those tiny spots of pigment. "They're yours."