This is set AFTER Shades of Hate and BEFORE Royal Pawn.
We were, in fact, not late.
But only because Subira had come to get us. She had walked in, seen Zuri taking her sweet time to put Mischa’s hair into an elegant up do and shook her head. A minute later, all three of us were walking out of the room after her and Mischa’s hair had been finished in less than thirty seconds.
“Don’t let these two wrap you up in their trouble,” Subira said to me as we walked. “They’re only trying to bother their brothers and father.”
“I figured, but that’s also one of my favorite pass times so…”
Subira laughed. “All of you are troublemakers.”
“Father said he had boring sons because he had amazing daughters,” Mischa said with a grin. It was interesting to see the dynamic. With Subira, Mischa and Zuri both lightened up into something akin to teenage girls with a mother they trusted their secrets with. A mother who was in charge, but was willing to get a laugh out of their antics, antics that would never happen without her audience.
We breezed into the dining room together, only Subira wearing a dress, which looked like something traditional. Hasan was the easiest to find. He puffed up with pride and his eyes heated with passion as he saw his mate. Then his eyes drifted over his daughters, landing on me then on to Mischa and Zuri. The rueful smile he gave was one I knew I had to commit to memory.
“You were right, love. I should have sent you with your daughters,” he said softly as he pulled out a chair for her. Subira only laughed as she sat down. I didn’t know what seat was mine, which was when Niko practically appeared out of nowhere and pulled out a chair.
“Here,” he said softly. I looked around the table as I got in place to sit down, seeing Jabari help Zuri find her seat and Hisao helped Mischa. Only Davor had no one and when everyone was in a chair, I realized he was the only one sitting with an empty place beside him except Zuri, who had one separating her and I.
“Where’s Kushim?” I asked, knowing the empty seat between had to be for Kushim. Which meant the other empty seat was for someone who would not be coming to dinner. The person Davor would have helped find a seat was his mate and she had been brutally murdered over a century ago.
Zuri sighed and turned to her brother. “Where is my mate?” she asked.
“He can’t be your true mate. He’s immune to magic,” Jabari countered. Zuri’s responding snarl made the closer silverware and dishes rattle. Jabari sighed heavily, looking at what she had done. “He was getting your son changed and said he would know how to get to the dining hall. I left instructions as well.”
She got back up and stomped out of the room.
“Jabari,” Hasan said, the tone chiding.
“He’s the father of her child. She is responsible for him,” Jabari snapped. “I didn’t ask to be his babysitter.”
Hasan’s relaxed posture did nothing to soften the blow of his glare. Jabari got up and followed his sister out.
“We always knew Jabari would be cranky is Zuri found someone,” Subira said, patting her mate’s hand. “They’ll need time to work through it. While Jabari has been able to restrain his initial need to hurt Kushim, it’s still going to take time for him to truly accept the new addition to his sister’s life. That’s part of the reason for this trip.”
“I’m not sure how I feel about it either,” Hasan replied, looking at her with a frustrated expression. “I recognize him. Something about him makes me think about the old times and you know…”
“How old?” she asked, her eyes suddenly sharp.
I was too interested to tear my eyes off them. I wasn’t the only one. Niko across from me, and was practically leaning in.
“Before they were born,” he said softly. “But he’s an old Immortal, so it would make sense. He’s clearly from my part of the world. He could have been my neighbor at some point for all I know. It was so long ago.”
That was when Zuri, Kushim, their baby, and Jabari came back into the dining room. This time, Kushim gave their son to Jabari and helped Zuri sit down. Before he moved to sit down, he took his son back, gave the baby to her, and sat between her and I.
“Hello, Jacky,” he said with a friendly smile. “Big fucking house.”
“Yeah,” I agreed with a small smile.
“I hate that you were able to be his friend before me,” Mischa said, huffing. “He looks like fun unlike the rest of our brothers.”
“Just throw the rest of us under the bus, then,” Niko said, lifting his hands. Hisao chuckled softly while Davor rolled his eyes. The peanut gallery was in full effect still.
“And we have run into each other before,” Kushim said, directing that at Hasan. That was something I didn’t know yet. I straightened up and Zuri sighed as she looked across her mate and shook her head. “But Zuri has already asked me to leave that for a discussion later in this trip and I will oblige my queen.”
“That was so romantic, I nearly gagged,” Mischa said, blinking rapidly.
“You are in rare form,” Niko said, laughing in a way that I often saw Heath do. It was a strange chuffing sort of noise. “What’s up with you, Mischa?”
“Zuri has never hid things from me before,” she said, turning on her sister. “And here we are, learning that you told Jacky that you were having a baby. And she met the baby’s father before the rest of us!”
“You’re not mad at me, are you?” I frowned. “Because that’s just not fair.”
“No, she’s upset with me,” Zuri said, playing with the swaddle around her son. “Let’s get to the important thing about this dinner so we can talk about all the rest. Everyone, I would like to introduce Amir, son of Zuri. He is not yet shown signs of being a werecat. This is his father, Kushim, the Immortal and my mate.”
“Can’t be your mate,” Jabari mumbled again.
Oh, Jabari, I thought you got over this on the tarmac. Why are you being a cranky ass right now at dinner?
“Yes, he can,” Davor snapped. “Don’t hurt Zuri.”
Everyone turned to him. I wasn’t the only shocked on at the table as Davor sank in his seat a little from the sudden scrutiny.
“Continue,” Hasan said softly. “Tell Jabari what you want to say.”
“Just because he’s an Immortal and the magic of a mate bond can’t reach him doesn’t mean that Zuri’s belief of his position is incorrect. The bond forms from the emotion between two people, and we know only one of them needs to be moon cursed. They have a child together. Zuri is ancient. She knows what she means when she calls him her mate. She knows what she feels. You should respect that.”
Everyone around me nodded as Jabari only inclined his head respectfully to Davor.
“I’m sorry, my twin,” he said gently. “This has taken me by surprise. You kept this secret effectively. I’ll need some time to adjust to this. You have a wonderful son, and I am excited to be an uncle. I’m just… overcoming the need to see if he’s really as Immortal as is said.”
It took a moment as everyone settled down for my confusion to become noticeable and it was Davor who sighed.
“Father didn’t get to this part of your education, did he?” my brother asked. I ignored Davor, though, turning to Hasan instead.
“Father is there something I don’t understand?” I raised an eyebrow at him.
“Mate bonding is very rare. It happens when a moon cursed develops intensely strong feelings for another, that person accepts those feels, and their souls join permanently. Your mother and I have the mate bond. Gaia and Titan had the mate bond. Corissa and Callahan have the mate bond. It’s nearly unbreakable and leads to the understanding of emotions between the pair. It’s so rare, it’s one of the last things I teach before sending a child out into the world. Only two of my children have ever had a true mate bond.”
I just stared at him, giving him an expression I hoped he took as a warning to stop keeping things from me. He sighed heavily.
“I didn’t leave it off on purpose, Jacky. I just haven’t been concerned about you making a mate bond, so it’s never comes up. In all my years, I’ve seen very few mate bonds and there is no one in your life that would lead me to think you’ll have that connection for years to come.”
“Yeah, it’s not really pertinent education for survival,” Zuri agreed, reaching out to pat my hand.
“I’ll talk to you more about it later if you’re interested,” Subira promised, smiling down the table at me. “You might have been a werecat for several years now, but everyone at this table learned all about our kind during their childhoods. Hasan was going to try and condense your education into a decade. It was never going to work. There’s going to be moments like this for at least another decade, I bet.”
I was thirty-nine years old, stuck in the body of a twenty-six-year-old. I had been a werecat for thirteen years.
And I found the one family that could make me feel like a child without even trying.
“So because Kushim is an Immortal, the magic of a mate bond is impossible,” I said, moving us back onto the topic of Zuri and her new mate. I hadn’t meant to take over the conversation.
“I know here,” she whispered, touching her chest. “But correct.”
Immortals, I knew, were magically inert and unkillable. Kushim and I had that conversation already and it had been an interesting one. They were just regular humans, but on the day they were supposed to die, they didn’t. They got up, healed from whatever was supposed to kill them—if it could be healed— and continued living. They were frozen in time at that point and couldn’t be killed after that. They weren’t super strong or fast, but mortal damage healed, and they continued with what they were doing. Magic had no effect on them, and they were known to accidentally break spells when they came into contact with one. The second one was more finnicky. Sometimes, the spell just had no effect on them, but would hit others. Sometimes, it nullified pregnancy protection spells and get unsuspecting werecat women pregnant on accident. Neither Zuri nor Kushim had considered pregnancy a possibility when they had decided to hook up.
“Why don’t we talk about Amir?” Subira said, looking around the table at everyone. No one argued. “And how he will be raised.”
“I like that,” Zuri said quickly. “So, I said he shows no sign of being moon cursed, but there’s more.”
“There’s a chance he’ll be like me,” Kushim said to the table. “There’s not a drop of magic in him at all. From my own upbringing, I know this is a possible sign that he might be an Immortal when he meets his first death. Now, I don’t know other Immortals who have had children. I’m sure some have, but I don’t know of any who are second generation Immortals, a parent and child.”
“This leaves the complicated situation that our son… might be mortal,” Zuri said, sighing. “And it would be up to him if he wants to attempt the Change.”
There was a collective, painful silence over the table.
“There’s a chance that I will have to watch my grandson… grow old and die?” Hasan asked softly.
“Yes, Father,” Zuri whispered. “There is. But we’re going to raise him as if he is either Immortal or a werecat. Like we intend for him to Change.”
“If he doesn’t become a werecat, there’s a chance he survives anyway and rises like me,” Kushim said, leaning over to put his elbows on the table.
“And there’s a chance he won’t make it at all,” Hasan snapped.
“Yes,” Zuri agreed softly. “There’s a chance.” The way she stared down our father made me, and probably everyone at the table, very clear at what she wanted.
“I don’t answer those questions, daughter,” he whispered.
“I haven’t asked,” she countered. “But moving on, I expect all of you to remember that for right now, my son is a potentially mortal and fragile boy.”
“We will never do anything to harm him,” Jabari promised. “If you want to foster him in our separate households, then I’m certain everyone here will oblige.” There was a round of approving nods and affirmative noises. I didn’t know how I would house Amir, or what I could possibly do to keep him entertained. I certainly couldn’t keep a kid around under the age of ten, but I was nodding just like the rest of my siblings.
“That’s all I needed to hear.” Zuri’s smile was one of pride and joy as she cuddled her son closer to him.
Everyone took a relaxed breath, and I was grateful when the rest of the evening went along rather smoothly. Dinner was delicious and then we moved into a sitting room, where coffee, wine, and other drinks were served. Even though it was summer, a fire was lit and it provided the only light for the room. I listened to my siblings pass around stories, small daily things from their time living around the world, but I didn’t join in with my own stories. My stories had werewolves in them and listening to theirs, being unable to share brought on a mood I couldn’t push away. I was the first of us to excuse myself, walking out quickly, early in the evening.
I went back to my room and fell into my bed, resisting the urge to text Heath. I gave in. I sent him a quick goodnight, wondering if he was even still awake then shut my eyes.