Chapter One

 

 

CATHAL wrapped his fingers around the warmth of the cup he held and let out a contented sigh. Although it had only been a few days since his and Tomas’s return through the portal at Rhosynoak, it was still the little things that made him very aware of how this world differed from his own. The machine that made this wonderful coffee, although seemingly commonplace to Donovan and Heidi, who owned the inn, was not something with which he was familiar. Tomas had been more than amused at Cathal’s insistence that he discover how it worked.

Priorities were important, and at this time of the morning, when the inn was quiet, coffee was decidedly one of them.

It had been nearly ninety years since he’d spent longer than a few snatched hours here, but with the way time moved differently in his home world of Naearu, it was little more than six years for him. So much had changed here. There were so many memories of long ago, but as Tomas had reminded him, they now also had the opportunity to make new ones.

A familiar presence brushed against the edge of his consciousness, and he reluctantly put down his own coffee to make another for Donovan. Tomas, Cathal’s betrothed, was not one for greeting the new day too early; whereas Cathal, coming from a world without electricity and the technological advances of this one, was used to getting up somewhat earlier.

It didn’t take long to make another cup of coffee, and it was waiting for Donovan when he wandered into the kitchen. “Morning,” he mumbled, his eyes widening appreciatively before sliding into his chair. He took a sip and then frowned.

“Is something wrong?” Cathal asked politely, knowing that the coffee was made exactly the way that Donovan liked it.

“You made this before I got here. I don’t usually start the day for at least another half an hour.” Donovan suddenly seemed much more awake than he had several moments ago.

“You woke earlier this morning.” Cathal met Donovan’s gaze directly. “I thought you might appreciate some coffee.”

“I do.” Donovan lowered his eyes. “Sorry. I guess I’m just noticing a lot of stuff and thinking there’s still a lot to sort through after what’s happened.”

Cathal put down his cup. “Yes, there is. It’s taking longer than I expected to adjust to our change in… circumstances.” While it was not his intention to keep hiding information, old habits were difficult to break. Donovan was a friend and someone to be trusted. He’d also taken care of Tomas and welcomed both of them into his home.

“This must be weird for you on a lot of levels. The last time you were here for any length of time was, when? 1918?”

“Yes.” In many ways it was a relief to be able to just tell the truth. Not that he’d lied before, but he’d had to think quickly in order to sidestep giving answers that would only serve to put the people he cared about at risk. The ruling order of Naearu did not take kindly to others knowing of its existence. He knew only too well what kinds of punishment awaited those who spoke of it to outsiders. As for those who dared to live and find love in another world….

Cathal shuddered.

“You okay?” Donovan’s expression softened. “I’ve been told that I can be an insensitive jerk before I’ve had my morning coffee. It takes a while for the brain to mouth filters to kick in.”

“I’m fine.” Cathal glanced through the window. The old oak still stood tall and proud, as it had for as long as he could remember. It was the constant in both their worlds and the link between them.

Donovan followed his gaze. “Your sister’s supposed to close that so-called portal, right? We’re not going to have that crazy woman and those Falcons of hers overrunning us anytime soon, are we?” The Falcons were the military police force of Cathal’s world.

“Irene told Tomas that she would, so she will.” Cathal’s sister was a mage, and a powerful one at that. “It might take a while, though, because of the time difference between our worlds.” Cathal had attempted to work out that difference once, but it was something upon which he preferred not to dwell. Only a few days had passed in Naearu for him and Tomas this last time, but it had been nearly six weeks here.

“Yeah, that.” Donovan sipped his coffee, thoughtful. “That must be a bitch, from your point of view. I can’t imagine what it must be like coming back here and everything’s changed so much.”

Cathal nodded, silent for a moment. “People grow old, Donovan. Alice….” He bit his lip. Alice was Christian’s wife. When Cathal and his cousin were dragged by the Falcons back to their own world, she’d been left behind in this one. Cathal was finally able to pass through the portal once more, but she was much older than he expected.

It had upset both of them; he’d just hid his reaction better than she had. Christian had promised his beloved they’d grow old together, and yet she’d already travelled so far along that road that he had no chance of ever catching up with her.

As for their child…. Cathal sighed, closing his eyes for a moment. He’d promised Wynne that he’d bring his father home, and he’d failed. Wynne was now an old man, and Christian… the enchantment that ensured that he and Alice could never be together still held, and until it was broken Christian could only be in this world in the form of a female cat.

“Cat?”

“Hmm?” Cathal opened his eyes, looking up to see Donovan’s worried expression.

“You and Tomas have a home here for as long as you need or want it.” Donovan put his cup down. “And if that bitch Deryn comes looking for either of you, she’ll have to go through me and Heidi first.”

“You’ve been speaking with Tomas about her.” Tomas had not hidden his opinion of the Lady Deryn at all. After he’d followed Cathal through the portal, she’d captured him and threatened him in an attempt to get Cathal to bed her. Cathal had known her since they were children and knew she would not give up her aspirations for the throne that easily.

“Yeah. Neither he nor Will are part of her fan club.” Donovan’s mouth narrowed. Will was an old friend who had helped them escape. He’d come through into this world with them, but had been injured in the final fight with Deryn. Like Cathal, he was usually an early riser, but was sleeping longer than usual and probably would continue to do so until he was more fully recovered.

“Do you want more coffee?” It was easier to take refuge in the question than to comment on what Donovan had said, at least for now. The action to refill their cups would give Cathal a few moments before he needed to answer. Donovan was very astute and, from what Tomas had said, also a good listener.

“Yeah, but I’ll get it.” Donovan leaned over and took Cathal’s cup. “If you want to talk about some of this stuff, I’m not going anywhere.”

Cathal shrugged, not sure how to answer. He wanted and needed to talk, but he wasn’t certain he wanted to burden Tomas with all of this just yet. There were still choices to be made, and while Tomas seemed to think that now they were back in his world they were safe, Cathal wasn’t as convinced. Perhaps Donovan would be the better person to speak to of all of this, at least for now.

His refilled coffee cup was placed in front of him, and Donovan sat down again. Although he didn’t ask another question, there was no need for him to do so as the silence between them spoke louder than any words could.

The inn itself had changed so much since he’d lived here before. The house still felt the same, but over the years it had grown old, rather like Alice and Wynne. It was like greeting an old friend, only to discover that while they’d changed and moved on seemingly overnight, you’d stayed the same.

No, that wasn’t quite the right analogy. Both Alice and Wynne’s lives had been affected by what had happened, to the extent that they couldn’t let go of the past any more than Cathal and Christian could. Alice had waited for Christian right up until her death, and Wynne’s life had been marred by the absence of a father he’d never known.

Time had also not stood still for Cathal, but merely progressed at a slower rate. He had a revolution to lead. His people needed him. And Deryn would not allow him to shirk responsibilities she still perceived to be his, however much he insisted they weren’t.

“So… Lord Emerys, huh?”

Cathal looked up, surprised at the interruption. “That is my title and name, yes. What of it?” It was not a title that sat well with him. He’d much prefer if it did not exist, but sadly he’d not had a say in the matter because of his lineage.

“Tomas said that you’re the king’s nephew where you come from.” Donovan did not appear to want to drop the matter. “So does that mean that this Christian guy is royalty too?”

The idea got the snort it deserved. “Fortunately for him, it does not.” Cathal envied Christian that he’d managed to escape that burden. “I’m sure his sentence would have been a lot more severe if there was any chance of him one day inheriting the throne.”

“So what would be considered severe?” Donovan shook his head. “If I have this right, your people turned him into a cat so that he couldn’t be with the woman he loved. Sounds fairly severe to me, as sentences go.” He muttered something under his breath.

Cathal stared at his coffee cup. “The cat was not my uncle’s idea, of that I am sure.” No, but the king had condoned it. He hadn’t wanted to believe it at the time, but it was what had changed his mind about taking a more active role in the resistance. His memories of the kindly uncle who had played with him and his siblings when they were small children did not mesh with the man who would allow such a thing to happen. Christian had done nothing wrong; his only crime was falling in love. Others had passed between their worlds with no harm done, although the laws against it existed even then. The stories of such meetings had been documented in the myths and legends of both their worlds.

Following his and Christian’s trial, it was decided that such transgressions needed to be acted upon more severely. That was one of the reasons given for their punishment. It was supposed to dissuade others from following their example.

“Then whose was it? And what would have been the alternative?” Donovan seemed curious. They’d already had one conversation about crimes and consequences, so this one was to be expected.

“Time in prison and hard labor, although some wanted him put to death.” Cathal wrapped his fingers around his cup once more, but this time the heat pricked sharply at the tiny cuts still healing across his palm. They were a reminder of his and Tomas’s imprisonment by Deryn, and a small price to pay for their escape. “I asked my uncle to plead Christian’s case, and pointed out that, as he was a commoner, the king could afford to show some mercy, especially with the unrest amongst our people.”

“Cat?” Donovan spoke his name softly; then his breath hitched. He stared at Cathal, his mouth opening as though to pass comment, but none was forthcoming.

Cathal nodded. “Exactly,” he whispered, his mouth dry. “There was no chance of Christian inheriting the throne. Our mothers are sisters. My father’s brother is the king. The sentence that Christian has endured was not his own, but mine.” God, he’d hated his nickname that day and had turned away from hearing it for months afterward. It had taken Christian, when they’d exchanged whispers through his cell window, to convince Cathal of the importance of still clinging to who he was and what he believed. He’d been Cat to his friends and family since he was a small child. He could not give it up just because of this.

“That sucks,” Donovan finally said. He reached over the table to place a reassuring hand over Cathal’s. “No offence, but the more I hear about your so-called laws, the less I’m impressed by them.”

“None taken, and it is one of the reasons why this resistance movement is so important.” Cathal took a sip of coffee, but not before he became aware they were no longer alone. With his connection to the tree weakened, his abilities in this world had strengthened somewhat. “At least in your current state, this is one conversation that will have to keep until later, cousin,” he observed, thankful for at least that small mercy.

It didn’t, however, prevent Christian from meowing his disapproval. Walking into the room, he sat to the side of Cathal’s chair and gave him a pointed look. Cathal obediently slid his chair back to give the cat room to sit on his lap.

Donovan shook his head. “I still can’t get my head around that cat not really being a cat.” Christian’s head came up. He examined Donovan for a moment and then snuggled back against Cathal. “The whole idea is crazy, and yet thinking about all the other stuff that’s gone on, it makes sense.”

“Mikey saw him transform.” Cathal stroked Christian’s fur under his chin when the cat lifted his head again. Although in this form his cousin was female, he could not think of him as such. Nor did he refer to him as Blackthorn, as there was no longer any need to call him the name Heidi had given the cat. Teasing him about it was one thing, but it was only to lighten the moment and an attempt to ignore the guilt.

“Some would say that Mikey has a reputation for seeing stuff that isn’t there.” Donovan was studying the interaction between the cousins intently.

“It’s quite likely that Mikey is capable of seeing what others don’t.” Mikey was Christian’s great-grandson, and because of that had something of their world about him. While it was not Cathal’s place to tell of another’s abilities, there was no harm in confirming what Donovan already suspected, especially as there were no details given in the telling. Christian’s tail twitched when Mikey’s name was mentioned. “You believe in what Mikey saw, though. Otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

Donovan laughed. “There’s that.” He leaned back in his chair, sipping his coffee. “I figure I’m allowed at least one more question for today.” The seriousness of his tone made Cathal’s finger still on Christian’s fur, both of them shifting their attention to gaze at Donovan intently.

“One more, yes.” Cathal kept his own voice light, but he had an idea of what Donovan was about to ask. “I’ll answer what I can.”

“Mikey’s got connections to your world.” Donovan spoke slowly, his brain making connections for which Cathal had deliberately given him clues. “I’m guessing that there’s some kind of abilities that come with that.” He put his cup down, his brow crinkling in thought. “Feel free to stop and correct me at any time.”

“I will.” Cathal smiled softly. Donovan was someone he and Tomas wanted on their side, rather than against them. Friendship might be built on trust, but it was better if he were allowed to figure some of this out on his own. He’d appreciate it for the truth it was that way, especially with the amount of information that had been given to him over the past few days. There was such a thing as too much, too quickly. Tomas would attest to that.

“You’re not hiding stuff like you were. I’m still deciding whether that’s a good sign or not, as it seems as though you’ve gone from one extreme to the other. I’m hoping it means you’re growing some trust. God knows you and Tomas are alike on that one.”

The statement took Cathal by surprise. “Tomas trusted me more quickly than anyone has in a very long time.”

“The guy loves you, Cat.” Donovan chuckled. “There’s a big difference between how he is around you and the rest of us mere mortals, although that’s getting better now that you’re together. It took him much longer to get his head out of his ass with everyone else.”

“Oh.” Cathal felt his face grow warm. He’d hated having to hide so much from Tomas when they’d first met, but his fear for Tomas’s safety was stronger than the instinct that he’d found a man he could finally trust. He felt Tomas stir, his presence growing stronger than it was when he was asleep. That development in his ability had taken him by surprise. His awareness of Tomas was much more complete than with anyone else, and the longer they were together, the more it seemed to grow.

Christian stopped purring, stretched, and jumped off Cathal’s lap, sauntering toward the open kitchen door. “Don’t even think about it,” Cathal warned, knowing his cousin a little too well.

The cat’s tail jerked up and down a couple of times before he disappeared toward the stairs.

“Whatever ‘it’ is, you’re wasting your breath. That cat has always had a mind of its own.”

“That he has,” Cathal agreed. Unfortunately his cousin also knew him very well, and would have figured out from his reaction that Tomas would be joining them soon.

Donovan raised an eyebrow. “Would you care to enlighten those of us who didn’t major in cat speak? That sigh suggests I’m definitely missing more than I thought from that one sided conversation.”

“Tomas will be joining us shortly. Christian is going to ensure it’s sooner rather than later.” For some reason the two of them did not get on as well as Cathal would have liked. He wasn’t sure as to the reason why. After all, Tomas had said the character of Christian was one of the things that had drawn him to read his and Alice’s story and find the sequel he was convinced must exist. Perhaps he was still trying to mesh the fantasy and the reality. While the journal that had formed the basis for Wynne’s book, In Hidden Places, had been written by Christian’s betrothed, Alice had described him fairly accurately.

“And you know that because?” Donovan’s attention was taken by something beyond the kitchen door. Cathal was not about to turn around to watch Christian’s latest performance; he was enjoying showing off just a little too much.

“I felt him begin to wake.” Cathal got up to pour a cup of coffee for Tomas. “Everyone has a different feel to them. I can usually sense someone approaching before I see them.”

“Like an aura?” Donovan chewed on his lip, trying to make sense of it.

“It’s not visual.” Cathal had read a little of such things in one of Alice’s books, but his ability was difficult to define or explain. Occasionally he had a sense of other’s emotions, but mostly it was just a strong feeling of someone’s presence. “More of a… sense of someone, of knowing they are there.” On a rare occasion, as with Tomas, it brushed against his mind or touched his own emotions, but with others, it was more of an intrinsic knowledge he couldn’t explain. He’d learned to trust the instinct over the years, as it had saved him and those he cared about more than once.

“It sounds like a handy talent to have.” Donovan grinned. “Do you have to have met the person first?” The grin had a disturbing element to it. Donovan had a plan.

“No.” Cathal eyed Donovan suspiciously. “I’d sense them but not be able to identify them. Why?”

“Tomorrow’s Wednesday.” Donovan’s grin suddenly took on an innocent air that Cathal didn’t trust in the slightest. It reminded him a little too much of one of his own. “Mrs. O’Neil visits on Wednesdays.”

Who was this Mrs. O’Neil? Both Tomas and Mikey had mentioned her and seemed to want to avoid her. Perhaps she was someone that Cathal needed to meet.

“You don’t need to meet Mrs. O’Neil just yet,” Tomas muttered, catching the end of the conversation. “Morning,” he mumbled, walking over to Cathal. “Is that coffee for me?” he asked hopefully, pulling Cathal back against him. “That damn cat sat on me and wouldn’t move until I got out of bed.” He wrapped his arms around Cathal’s waist.

“It’s for you.” Cathal leaned back, tilting his head so that he could kiss Tomas good morning.

“Hmm.” Tomas murmured his appreciation, although Cathal wasn’t sure whether it was for the coffee or the kiss. Not one to shirk politeness and knowing the importance of saying thank you, he deepened the kiss a little, feeling the morning bristle of Tomas’s whiskers against his own recently shaven cheeks. He rather liked Tomas unshaven. His facial hair had a hint of red to it that was missing elsewhere. It suited him.

“Haven’t you guys heard of getting a room?” Donovan drawled.

Cathal broke the kiss, frowning. “But we are in a room,” he said, wondering if this was another of this world’s strange expressions with which he was unfamiliar.

“Donovan needs to heed his own advice.” Heidi interrupted from the doorway. Cathal looked up in surprise, not having felt her approach. Being in Tomas’s arms seemed to distract his ability more than a little. He’d noticed that the last time Donovan had interrupted them kissing.

“Oh?” Tomas’s eyebrow rose. He glanced between Heidi and Donovan. But surely Heidi was involved with Doug Greene, the local law enforcement officer? From what Cathal knew, Donovan had not mentioned a significant other.

Heidi grinned. She had an evil sense of humor, Tomas had said, and wasn’t above teasing someone if she thought they deserved it. It was no wonder Christian spoke highly of her.

“That’s not fair!” Donovan mumbled. “It was only once, and we were more discreet with it than these guys.”

“We?” Tomas took the opening, saving Cathal the trouble. They were both curious now.

“Ethan.” Donovan shot Heidi a glare. “I hadn’t said anything yet, okay?” He took a deep breath. “Ethan and me. He came looking for you while you were gone. We’re seeing each other.”

Tomas looked at Donovan. Ethan was Tomas’s friend. They’d met while at university and had stayed in touch ever since. “Ethan?” he spluttered. “As in my Ethan? But… he’s not… is he?”

“Gay?” Heidi said helpfully. “From what I saw when he was here, he most definitely is.” Her expression softened, and she smiled at Donovan. He blushed. “You were missing for six weeks, Tomas. A lot can happen in that time.”