This is set AFTER Shades of Hate and BEFORE Royal Pawn.
“Hurry up, child. Take the boy and get through the door.” It was quiet enough that I nearly missed it and I knew Kushim wouldn’t have heard it. That meant none of family did either, all still standing at the table in confusion.
Zuri didn’t deflate at the chiding words. She relaxed and looked back, taking a bundle. The baby was wrapped so well that I couldn’t see a single thing about “the boy”.
I was practically shaking with excitement when Zuri was halfway down the stairs. Kushim chuckled at me, shaking his head.
“Wait until he starts crying,” the Immortal said, sounding much wearier than he had.
“Not my problem!” I said, making a high-pitched noise once Zuri’s feet were on the tarmac. “Zuri!”
“Jacky!” She laughed as I walked over, trying to both rush and take my time. “Let me guess. You want to hold him first.”
“I knew about him first! Of course I want to hold him first!” I held out my hands as I saw Hasan start moving towards us. “Hurry, before grandpa gets here.”
Zuri was still laughing as she passed over the perfect baby.
“Ten perfect toes and ten perfect fingers and this little button baby nose,” she said as I oh’ed and aw’ed. She sounded so proud of her baby and I could see it. He was a blend of them and then his big dark eyes open and seemed endless. The answers to the mysteries of the universe could be found in those endless dark eyes.
“I love him,” I declared. “Does he have a name yet?”
“He does, but we’ll announce it tonight at dinner,” she answered. “Now, give me my baby back.”
I made a noise but handed him over. That was when Hasan stopped next to us, his chest heaving.
“Zuri?” He lifted a hand, and I could see the tiny shake as he considered reaching for the baby.
“Father.” Zuri held her son and looked him square in the eye, daring him to say anything about this secret she had kept.
“Hasan.” The third voice was one of strong power from a very small body. Hasan’s eyes flew up and then saw his mate at the door. “I dared a plane to be here. The boy can wait. Let him acclimate to the new environment so he stays settled.” She threw a small glance at me.
That was funny since Zuri had already let me hold “the boy”.
“Subira,” he replied, then he took his attention off the baby and went to the bottom of the stairs. He lifted a hand as she started to walk down. I watched the intimate touch as she rested her hand in his. He helped her with the last few steps, getting her onto the ground firmly into his territory. He released her for only a moment to shove the entire staircase attached to the plane away from the plane itself. Then a fierce growl erupted from him as he swooped down to kiss her.
“You’ve been keeping secrets from me,” he accused when the kiss was over. Everyone stood silently for this interaction. This was a side of Hasan had never seen before. This fierce, passionate lover thing. I wasn’t grossed out —I was way too old for that— but it was different. There was a clear and familiar love that I knew well. The need to touch, to hold, to protect, to have and be taken by. In that moment, I was certain Hasan would destroy the world if it meant keeping Subira alive.
“I have,” she agreed. “But my daughter wanted to have her son at home, without the external world telling her how to be a mother. Plus, we had to find the father,” she finished, teasing and annoyed as she gestured at Kushim, who gave an extravagant bow.
Hasan turned to see the scarred Immortal and frowned.
“You’re Immortal,” he said softly, his eyes narrowing.
“I am,” Kushim confirmed.
Jabari was the one who jumped into action and snarled at Kushim.
“You got my sister pregnant and then left her?” he snarled. Kushim reacted to Jabari’s approach with lightening speed, revealing he had two long daggers inside his coat.
And he clearly knew how to use them.
“If you hurt him, you will be banned from all of my territories and you will never meet your nephew,” Zuri hissed. That stopped Jabari in his tracks before he reached the Immortal. “He is my mate, and you will make him feel nothing but welcomed by this family. We have had a child together. It was an accident, but it was our accident, and I couldn’t be more overjoyed by him in my life. So you will stand down. This is not a case where you get to fight for my honor. There was none lost.”
Jabari stepped back, appraising Zuri and the bundle in her arms.
“You love him.” It was a simple statement.
“And I her,” Kushim promised as he slowly stepped closer to her and their son. “And I will defend myself if necessary.”
“No need,” Jabari said softly, reaching to hold out his hand to the newcomer to our dysfunctional family. “So long as it remains that way.”
They shook and Zuri’s eyes threatened to roll into the back of her head and never come down.
“Moving on!” she said, turning to the rest our siblings. “I called this family meeting so you could all meet my son as he was now old enough to fly. For the next two weeks, I expect all of you to shower him in love and affection and get along with each other. If anyone wakes him up at two in the morning arguing, I will kill you. You will learn his name at dinner tonight.”
There was a round of chuckles.
Then she handed the baby off to Jabari and touched her twin’s cheek.
“I wanted to do this with Mother,” she explained softly. “Without anyone breathing down my neck. Something intimate and personal. I wanted him born in our homeland.”
“Of course,” he agreed softly. “I would have gone rabid trying to help you.” He smiled at his nephew. “You shall be a fine warrior. You get it from both sides, it seems.” He eyed Kushim, who nodded. There was no denying that Kushim could get into a fight and win it.
“I’m next!” Mischa said, stepping forward. “Because age matters and I, for one, cannot believe you didn’t tell me you were pregnant. I’ve also had an actual living, breathing baby to take care of before.”
“Yeah, you sure act like it,” I teased. Mischa’s smile turned deadly when she pointed it at me.
“I’ll get you back for that,” she warned ominously.
“Your family is terrifying,” Kushim whispered in Zuri’s ear.
“I warned you. And we rule the werecats,” she said with a smile.
“May the gods have mercy on your people,” Kushim said with a rough chuckle like he was choking on his tongue.
“Yeah…” I agreed. He threw me a grin.
I watched the baby get passed around, even into Davor’s arms, who smiled, but I saw the sadness there too. Niko grinned at the little boy cooed at him and finally, the baby made it to the arms of the only one who mattered.
“I am a grandfather again,” Hasan said softly, holding the baby to his chest while his mate hung on his arm.
“You are,” she said, smiling dreamily. “He’s a good boy, too. Much better than Jabari was at his age.”
Jabari coughed, clearly embarrassed by that little fun fact.
“Hush. You and Zuri were the only babies I got to have,” she said, pinning him with a stare. “I raised the rest of you since you were knee high. Except…”
Everyone looked at me. I was the odd one out. I had been an adult when I had met Hasan. An adult when I nearly died in a terrible car accident that would claim the life of my human fiancé.
An adult when I was brought into the family.
“You seem like you’ve spoken,” Hasan said, refusing to give up the boy as Zuri reached for him. He even growled a little when she tried a second time. He looked between his mate and I the entire time, deftly dodging his eldest’s daughter’s attempts to get her son back.
“We have,” Subira confirmed. “But I haven’t had the chance to do this to my youngest daughter yet…”
She crossed the space between us while I stood in some sort of terror, and grabbed my face once she could reach it. She yanked me down, deceptively strong for her small size.
And she placed a single kiss on my forehead. I closed my eyes and fought a wave of emotion that ran through me.
Immediate acceptance. That was what she was giving me. In one instant, I went from understanding the concept of her to really feeling it.
She lifted my head so we could stare at each other and I knew I was her daughter. No one else’s.
I belonged to Subira and Hasan’s teasing rang clear. He’d warned me long ago to never tell her that I wasn’t her daughter and now I saw the fierce possession in her face.
It terrified me. My instinct was both to trust it and to run from it. I hadn’t known real love from a mother for years and it scared me to trust this new feeling. It would be so easy for Subira to crush me. Not physically, not magically, but she could destroy me all the same without either of those. All she would have to do is to take away the simple thing she was trying to give me.
“You have told me some stories over our calls,” she said. There was a knowing expression in her eyes as she stared me down. “I wish to hear more. I wish to know how my daughter was raised in my absence. You will tell me these stories so I need to know how I can fix the damage others have done to your heart.”
I wanted to start spilling my trauma to her. Not the big trauma. Not the car accident, not being stolen out of my own territory. Not the fights with vampires or the BSA.
No, I wanted to tell her other traumas. How my own parents resented me. How I felt like I didn’t fit in anywhere. How I felt like an outsider in this new family sometimes.
And from the look on her face, she was willing and able to hold all of those things for me. She wanted to hold all of those things, to take them away from me and let me live in peace.
“I came on this trip for you,” she whispered then kissed both my cheeks. “We have lost time to make up for and you are finally ready to tell me your story. You are also ready to hear mine.”
I could only nod. Then she released me and stepped back and I felt a weight lift my chest. There was no smell of magic, and I checked because I knew she was a witch as well as a werecat. No, the presence she had was something uniquely her own. She hadn’t needed magic for me to be so thoroughly taken.
Then she was finally diverted from me and snapped her fingers at her mate.
“Hasan, give our daughter the boy she brought into this world. Now.”
Hasan looked up and there something a little feral about his expression. He did as she asked, though, handing the boy back to his mother like he was the most precious thing to exist on this earth.
“We don’t have many babies in this family,” he said softly.
“And you finally have one that has your blood in his veins. Yes, I know, but you cannot keep that baby,” Subira said, exasperated with her mate.
Hasan smiled, showing off werecat fangs as he edged closer to a Change.
“We could always have another one ourselves,” he said, reaching for her.
“Oh gods,” Zuri said, rolling her eyes again.
“I can’t go out drinking, but you can start talking about babies?” Mischa was righteously offended. “Unfair.”
“I’m your father and the patriarch of this family. I don’t need to be fair,” he growled at her as Subira allowed him to wrap his arms around her.
“I brought the good alcohol,” Subira said with a smile, leaning back into him. “Don’t waste your time on the human stuff.”
“Oh, then we need to go. Let’s get home. We’re all here!” Mischa started directing everyone towards the hangar bay. “Hey, someone get the cars pulled around!” she yelled.
Hisao reached out and put a hand over her mouth. Niko was chuckling as he followed them away. Davor was right behind him, stiff and silent.
Eventually, we were all in the hangar bay and I took a moment to soak it in.
For the first time since I had joined the family, it was together. I had never seen them all in one place before.
Then Jabari jumped on Niko and started messing up his hair. Something was said that I had missed beforehand. The scuffle knocked over chairs, Zuri snapped, the baby started to cry. Kushim brought his daggers back out in warning as he glared at the frozen men, who had stopped the moment the crying had started. Hasan’s anger was more intense than standing on the sun and Subira helped Zuri calm the baby down. It took ten minutes, and no one moved an inch during the process.
Then a new horror settled on me, one I had been excited about. It hadn’t quite dawned on me what this trip actually meant. Now I understood.
We were all going to be trapped on this island together for two weeks.
It was going to be chaos.