Her heart clenched. He called her Tally, but he didn't trust her with his soul, the leopard's wariness hidden behind a near-impenetrable shield - yet she knew. Did he think she didn't? Silly, arrogant leopard. She knew him too well, loved him too much, to not see. "You said 'please,'" she teased, fighting past the painful insight that no matter what happened, he might never again love her as he once had.
"I want to. But I'd feel so guilty having fun while - "
"A few hours, that's all. It'll help you get your head back on straight."
She had to agree with that. Her focus was shot, which reminded her - "Did you get an update on Max?"
"He's fine, conscious. I had a packmate swing by and do a physical check."
Some of the weight crushing her lightened. "Tell me, why the dance?"
"It's to celebrate the formal blessing of a mating."
"Like a wedding?"
"Mating is nothing like marriage. It's forever. Mated pairs never choose to leave each other," he said. "Complete loyalty till death."
Her soul ached at the thought of the beauty, and the terror, in such a commitment. "Why the blessing if it's already decided?"
"To show the pack's acceptance, welcome Zach's mate into DarkRiver." His eyes grew intent, penetrating. "You okay, Tally?"
He knew her far too well, too, but she couldn't let him sense this hurt, didn't want her new knowledge - of the love she might've lost forever - to come between them. "I'm fine. Just a little tired."
His expression gentled. "I need to be there, baby. I'm a sentinel."
"Your presence matters to them," she said, so proud of what he'd become. "I understand. Let me freshen up."
Once in the bedroom, she quickly washed her face and hands, then pulled on the newest and nicest shirt she had packed. It was white and long-sleeved, the severe lines broken up by slender panels of fine lace down both sides. She left on the jeans she was wearing, but let down and brushed her hair. Then, on a whim, she dug around in her bag until she found a little zippered pocket. She thought she'd forgotten to take out something from there the last time she'd - Her hand touched metal.
"Bingo!" She lifted out the faux-silver earrings. A Celtic design, they would swing gently from her ears, dressing up her simple outfit. Her smile dimmed as she stood in front of the mirror slipping them into her ears.
Jon had given her these a few months ago. They were cheap - he'd found them at some flea market - but they meant everything, because he had bought the gift with honest, hard-earned money. "I haven't forgotten you," she promised with fierce dedication. "We haven't forgotten you." Because finally, after much too long, she had realized her leopard would stand by her through every darkness.
Clay was leaning against a tree at the edge of the Pack Circle, watching Nico swing Talin around, when he felt a familiar presence. Sascha came to stand beside him, keeping a small distance between them. Though most changelings craved touch, she knew he wasn't one for casual contact.
"She looks like she's having fun."
Clay nodded. "Yeah."
"So why are you standing here?"
"I'm not a big dancer."
Sascha shifted and he knew she'd folded her arms. "That's your excuse for tonight. What about all those other times you choose the shadows?"
"What's this - free psychoanalysis?" He had made it very clear that he didn't want anyone, even Sascha, peering into his emotions. "Been peeping, Sascha?"
"I don't actively have to look, you know that. I pick up emotional echoes like you pick up scents." She leaned back against his tree. "Things have improved a considerable amount since Talin came into your life, but you're not happy."
"You're a genius."
"Stop being flippant," she said, quiet power in her voice. "This is important. You aren't helping Talin by being this way."
He glanced at her. "Tally is my business."
"She might have been once," she replied. "But you brought her into the pack and now she's ours, too."
Clay felt the leopard uncurl into a crouch inside of him. "What are you saying?"
"We like her. We'll look out for her. Even against you."
He tempered his response with cold steel. "I will look out for Talin."
"I don't know." She shrugged. "All I see is this wall you've got around yourself, so hard, so thick. She's your way out, Clay, but only if you let her be."
Nico jerked Talin in a particularly energetic whirl and Clay scowled. She was human, not changeling. He hoped the boy remembered she could be more easily hurt. Then she laughed and he relaxed. "Stop talking in riddles and give it to me straight."
A frustrated sound. "Fine. Whatever it is that you're letting poison your relationship, you need to get over it. You're not good for her like this."
The blunt comment stunned him. Sascha was intensely loyal to DarkRiver. The fact that she'd put Talin's well-being above his gained her another slice of his respect, even as the implications of her statement angered him. "I'm giving her everything I can. More than I've ever given anyone."
"Not enough, Clay. And she knows it."
Claws raked his gut. "She's not like you. She can't feel what I feel."
"You tell yourself that if it makes you feel better." She moved into his line of sight, tall enough that he only had to lower his head a few inches to meet her gaze. "Your Tally is one of the most sensitive human beings I've ever met. Some abused children become that way - alert to the slightest changes in the emotional temperature of a room or a relationship. She knows exactly what you feel."