Dorian nodded. "That's my take - she was heading to a hidden access point." He smiled at Judd's sudden alertness. "She said she doesn't support the Implant Protocol, but that she's being forced to work on it because she's the best."
Judd's eyes turned assessing. "What did she look like?"
"Skin like hot chocolate, dark hair, tall, built like a woman should be, pale eyes - couldn't catch the color with the distance. Sound familiar?"
Talin wondered at Dorian's sensuous description, but no one else seemed to notice. More to the point, Judd's response to the oral sketch was immediate. "Yes. What else did she say?"
"That in return for saving Jon and Noor, what she wants us to do is kidnap her kid. The boy - Keenan - is being held hostage by the Council as a way to ensure her good behavior."
Growls sounded around the table. Talin might've been startled had she not already known what these people were like, the lengths they would go to to protect children.
Sascha, one hand still clasped in Lucas's, sat forward. "Why? Why does her behavior rely on the child?"
Mercy choked on the muffin she'd grabbed. "He's her baby. Reason enough."
"No." Sascha shook her head. "Not for the Psy."
"Psy don't feel," Tamsyn agreed, "so the connection can't be emotional."
"Or maybe it is," Sascha said, tone thoughtful. "We know nothing about this woman - it may be that she's close to breaching Silence."
"I got frostbite just talking to her," Dorian muttered. "Trust me, she's a f**king emotional refrigerator. But she's right about the kid. He's four years old and in the hands of the Council."
"We have to help him." Talin spoke up. She might be sitting in the midst of some of the most powerful people in San Francisco, but she was no coward. And she had the strength of a leopard at her side. "No matter why she did it, she got Jon and Noor out."
Clay hugged her back against him, a tenseness to his muscles she couldn't quite understand. "There's going to be a problem," he said quietly.
"The PsyNet," Judd murmured. "Boy will need another neural net to hook into."
"I don't know how to connect someone to our Net or if it's even possible," Sascha said with a frown. "And yours isn't stable enough to open up."
Judd looked thoughtful. "With my mating Brenna, it's gained some strength. Sienna continues to be erratic, but her control is better than it was when we considered the question of letting you in. It may work. We'll have to enter his mind and cut his connection to the PsyNet."
"That sounds like it would hurt him," Talin said.
Judd's eyes met hers. "Yes, it feels like dying. But if we don't do it, they'll track him down in seconds. And if the Council thinks his pain will sway his mother, they will hurt him again and again." His voice wasn't aggressive, but so icy cold that Talin shivered. When she felt Clay stiffen to attacking readiness, she put a hand on his arm and lifted up her head. Let it go, she mouthed. Judd hadn't exactly been politic about telling her she was wrong, but she was sure he hadn't meant to offend.
Clay held her gaze for a long moment, then gave a small nod. But as she turned back to the others, she knew he planned to have words with Judd later. She would just have to make sure she caught him before then. Startling as it was, Clay - big, intense, dangerous Clay - seemed to listen to her. "Who is she that the Council wants her that bad?"
"Her name," Judd said, a deep satisfaction in his tone, "is Ashaya Aleine. She's the M-Psy in charge of Protocol I. We had a suspicion that she might be on our side, but so long as the Council had her cooperation, we couldn't trust her. I don't think we can now, either - we have no idea why she wants the child removed from the equation."
"She give you a time frame?" Clay asked Dorian.
"Within the next two months."
"Then we can discuss the details later," Clay said. "Noor will be up soon and we need to decide what to do to make her and Jon disappear."
"Not a problem," Lucas said, and for the first time, Talin heard the alpha in his tone. "Noor's looks will change soon enough. Until then we use cosmetic methods to keep her hidden. We're going to have to get her used to a new name, too. Maybe a nickname."
"It'll take time," Sascha said, "but she's young enough for it to be natural. With Jon, he has to make the choice."
"I think he'll be okay with that," Talin said, a lump in her throat as she thought of the future now within Jon's reach. "And he hasn't hit his growth spurt. Another year and he'll be taller, his body different. He'll start shaving."
"Tell him he's getting that tattoo lasered off." Tamsyn made a face. "It's hideous."
Talin had to agree. "And distinctive. His hair - it's distinctive, too."
Clay grunted. "He'll cut it, no problem."
Talin went to argue with him, then stopped. Jon probably would cut his shoulder-length hair without a peep - the boy was already showing the first signs of hero worship, and it was Clay he'd fixated on. Just like Noor. Talin could guess why. There was a deep protectiveness in Clay, a sense that once he made you his own, he'd do anything to keep you safe. Like he had for her.
She turned into his embrace. He dropped an absentminded kiss on her hair and at that moment, everything was right in her world. The Psy weren't out there looking for more innocent children, she wasn't slowly dying from a disease that was stealing into her very cells, and Clay trusted her without exception.
A few hours later, Clay found himself standing in a corner of the yard, watching Talin talk with the kids. When Dorian walked up to him, he didn't waste time. "What didn't you say in front of the others?"