Releasing her nape, Clay reached up and tugged at her ponytail. When she shot him a startled glance, he said, "That is special, Tally. How many other people can say that?"
She still felt it like a kick to the heart each time he unbent enough to use her childhood nickname. She had never allowed anyone else the right. "But if you're right," she said, mind clearing in a thundering wave of horror, "that means it's Shine that's recruiting gifted kids. They're the ones separating out these children from the general population, making them targets."
Disliking the shocked pain he could sense within her, Clay hugged her against his side. He'd braced himself for her flinch, but she came without a fight. It was all he could do not to pull her into his lap. "I know you think it's a mole," he murmured, "but is there even a small chance it could be the foundation as a whole?"
"No." She shook her head, as if thrusting off her shock. "No, they care. All the Guardians - that's my title - are ex-Shine kids. We're the kind of people who'll tear the world apart to find our charges. Iain's Guardian, Rangi, is dealing with a huge family crisis right now, but he contacts me twice every day for updates.
"Most of the other kids that were taken, they didn't have assigned Guardians yet, or believe me, you'd have a whole pack screaming for answers. If Shine wanted easy prey, they wouldn't have chosen people like us to watch over the children."
The leopard appreciated her fierce dedication to those under her care. But that only went so far - soon as they found Jon, she was going to see a hundred specialists if that was what it took. She couldn't die. End of story. His eyes narrowed. "Three of your kids got taken, Tally. Why, if they're looking for those who won't be missed?"
"You're right." Her hand trembled. "Jon's easy to explain - he never agreed to an official Guardian. I just sort of bullied him into cleaning up his act." Clay could see how it tore into her that in trying to give Jon a better life, she might have put him in harm's way. He decided he'd kiss the sass back into her when they were alone. "On the official records, I'm listed as his street contact, nothing more."
He nodded. "Mickey and Diana?"
Talin's chest rose as she took a deep breath. "Mickey, he was mine on the records. I don't know why he was targeted." She wanted to touch Clay for comfort, curled her hand into a fist to stop from doing so, though she did lean deeper into his embrace. "Di, I'm almost sure was at the wrong place at the wrong time. Easy prey."
"That implies a certain lack of control," Nate broke in. "Everything else points to clockwork precision."
Clay frowned. "Could be the structure's breaking down."
"Or," Tamsyn suggested, "they've become overconfident. They could have started taking the specific children they want instead of waiting for a safe target."
"Maybe," Nate agreed, eyes intent. "Bottom line - you need to get Shine to give up the reason they single out children who might be termed gifted."
"Not all of them are," she pointed out.
Clay stroked his hand up and down her arm, a comforting act but also a disturbing one. "Maybe not, but there are enough that we need to know why."
"I'm not anywhere high enough in the organization. Dev knows me but - " She broke off as something beeped. "What's - Oh, crap." She dug through her pants pocket to retrieve a small silver phone. "The kids I'm watching over for Rangi have this number." Flicking it open, she held it to her ear. "It's Talin."
So close, Clay had no trouble catching the response. His entire body went on alert. A second later, Talin's hand reached out to clutch at his. "Tonight?" She looked at him, eyes huge with shock.
"Yes, okay. What time?" A pause. "All right. I'll talk to you then." She closed the phone. "Whoa, that was weird."
Clay tangled his fingers more firmly with hers as his cat batted the tone of what he'd heard in the air, considered the taste of it.
"I didn't catch the name," Tamsyn said. "Who was that?"
Talin stared. "You heard everything from the other side of the table?"
"Sorry." The healer winced. "Bad manners, but in my defense, human-level speech is pretty loud for us."
"I guess I need to invest in an earpiece." Her tone was intrigued rather than offended.
Clay wondered if she realized she was already thinking in the long term. Something very tight in him unfurled a fraction.
"The name," Nate prodded, when she remained silent.
"Clay." She looked to him, mischief in her eyes. His Tally had bounced back as she always did. But he still intended to pet her afterward. Being able to get past the pain of losing those under her care didn't mean it had stopped hurting. "You want to do the honors?"
He scowled at her for the way she was teasing the others. She grinned, unrepentant. "It was Devraj Santos," he said, his cat delighting in the small bit of fun. It would've surprised his packmates - he wasn't known for indulging in the kind of play that was second nature to them. But Talin had always made not playing impossible. He hadn't known how much he missed that aspect of their old relationship until this instant.
"Weird doesn't describe it," Nate muttered. "We talk about him and he calls. You sure he's not an F-Psy?"
Talin laughed. "No, he's very much human - I've heard he's got such a temper, he can't keep a secretary." She rubbed the pad of her thumb along Clay's where their hands lay intertwined. "The meeting's for nine at a restaurant about an hour from here."