Author’s Note: So I am typing this with a cat on my shoulder half keeping one of my arms from moving like it would were I typing normally. He’s purring. He claimed me. He’s Arthur; he can do that.
Besides, I was gone last night, so he’s all miffed at me for that and is now claiming this human as his all over again. While it’s annoying because I was trying to get more writing in before bed, I do love my cats.
Nolan really likes his cats, too, even if he doesn’t name them as well as we have. Well, Moof might object to that statement, but can you really beat Uther Pendragon, better known as Arthur?
“You look exhausted,” Shaelynn said, watching Nolan across the couch. His eyes were closed, and he had the black one with white paws in his lap, running his fingers through the cat’s fur, but the fatigue still showed in all those old places she knew so well. He’d changed since he was seventeen and she first memorized him during those long nights planning their escape. Having that to focus on took away from the awkwardness of their “marriage,” and they had somehow managed to stay friends then and now—though he was right—it had been too long.
“You say that because you want to sleep.”
She kicked him. “Come on. I found what’s been bothering you, didn’t I? You have a plan now—well, your plan is letting me make the plan—so you can stop worrying and relax. Go to sleep.”
“Don’t kick Boots. He doesn’t like that.”
“Boots? You named that cat Boots?”
“Yes. Socks would have been too mundane and ordinary with those feet, I refused to do anything that called him ‘Paws,’ and he took offense to Booties.”
She blinked. That was another example of his kind of messed up logic, but she knew she was going to end up smiling about it, maybe even laughing. She shook her head. “Boots and Creamsicle—I’m not sure I want to know the others’ names.”
“I already introduced you to them. You weren’t paying attention.” He nudged her with his foot. “I guess I can see why the others haven’t come around you. They are extremely disappointed in you. You can’t even take the time to learn their names. Do you know what colors they are? Do you know what they look like at all?”
She rolled her eyes. “Yes. One is a calico and the other is gray.”
“Boots and I agree—you are no longer welcome. You have to go. If you cannot show proper respect for the cats in this house, you just can’t stay here. We can’t allow such an obvious cat-hater in our midst. You must go. Now.”
She shook her head. “It was gray. Stop acting like an idiot. If I could lift you, I’d just carry you back into your bed because this is ridiculous. You need to sleep already. I’d drug you, but it is not worth it. I also don’t feel like allowing you to drink again.”
“The cat is not gray,” Nolan said, reaching down to lift the cat into his arms. “See? He’s hazel. Hazelnut, actually, and before you insult that name, Nora gave it to him—before her building changed policies and said no pets and she gave him to me.”
“Yes,” Nolan said, and the cat started to purr. Shaelynn shook her head. Sometimes he was so ridiculous. “Hazelnut may choose to forgive you, but I haven’t yet. As for Patchwork, you won’t see her until Hazelnut has forgiven you.”
Shaelynn set Creamsicle to the side and rose. “There has to be more to this not sleeping business than you’ve been saying. You are actively avoiding sleep now, and if you are exhausted but won’t sleep—and you are exhausted—you’re not just having trouble sleeping. You’re scared to sleep. Why?”
“You remember those nightmares I used to get?”
She nodded. She hadn’t ever managed to forget the way he’d wake her with them. Nolan hadn’t been raised to their life like she had, he wasn’t the cult leader’s child, wasn’t indoctrinated from birth. She’d had nagging senses here and there that what they were doing was wrong, but Nolan had known enough of the real world to know how far her father had skewed reality, had bent the rules of right and wrong and twisted their morality to where fighting for him was right, to where they would be willing to take lives for his sake. Nolan had never been able to accept that, and she’d found voice for her own doubts in him.
He still carried those doubts, those ones that had tormented him in the night. Ambrose had made a fighter out of him, had made a soldier—in all that Nolan had all the skills and the techniques he needed, a poker face that made it seem like he didn’t have a problem doing it—but Nolan had never shed his conscience, and that guilt gave him nightmares.
“Why would they be back?” She didn’t know why he’d bring that back up again, even in his subconscious, because he’d spent the last thirteen years proving that he wasn’t that person.
“You know that keyed up sensation you feel when you know you have to fight? That nerves-on-fire agitation that can be pure adrenaline after that paranoia sets in?”
She could pinpoint the last time she’d felt that—when Nora called her to say he’d been shot. She’d been running on that until she got to the hospital and saw he was alive with her own eyes, and it didn’t end until he was out of the hospital and back on his feet. “Yes.”
“I have this feeling like maybe a fight is coming. I don’t want it to come, and I don’t know that it’s just this takeover because that is… it’s corporate. It’s not dangerous. Even if they took the firm, I’d just leave. They can’t force me to work for them, to be their mouthpiece or selling point. I’m not that worried about it.”
She wasn’t sure she believed that. “We’ll see how you feel after we have a real plan in place. If that is what’s bothering you, it’ll pass. If not, we’ll find something else.”
He looked at her. “Why? Why does there have to be something else and why should we even bother looking for it?”
“That’s a dumb question.”
She lifted Hazelnut out of his arms. “Yes, it is, and you know why it is, so I’m not going to bother explaining it. I’m just going to shove you in that bed and keep you there until you sleep.”
“That’s quite the threat.”
She almost laughed. She didn’t really like it, but she had a feeling that if she stayed with him this time, he’d be able to sleep, maybe even without a nightmare. That had worked before. She’d been better than a security blanket or a stuffed animal could ever have been for him. She ignored the memory that tried to surface, his teasing voice—what is a wife for if not to be a snuggly toy?—and pushed him into his bedroom. “Sleep. Now.”
“I think you will regret this for the rest of the day.”
Shaelynn’s eyes opened, and Nolan grinned down at her, not wanting to think too much about the fact that he’d finally been able to sleep last night. He didn’t want to acknowledge the obvious reason for that, the one sitting in the chair by the window.
“That chair isn’t very comfortable. I’ve fallen asleep in it before, and it is not worth suffering through the day after.”
She blinked. “Worse than after one of Ambrose’s training sessions?”
He considered that, had to shake his head almost immediately. Ambrose’s methods were brutal. Ambrose was brutal. He’d made sure that training hurt every time, and while it was supposedly in the name of making better soldiers, Nolan had always figured that man enjoyed it way too much. “No, so I guess you’ll live.”
“I think so,” she told him, pushing him away with her foot. She stood, stretching, and Nolan tried not to watch her. She still kept to part of the morning ritual they’d all been told to use—for her, he supposed it made sense. She had been raised with it, and it wasn’t as life-altering and offensive as it had been for him.
He rubbed his back. He probably could use some stretches himself, but he would not do it. He had sworn off that routine and as much of Ambrose’s teachings as he could. “Next time, get me to fall asleep and then go back to your hotel room.”
“Where’s your nobility?”
He turned, frowning at her. “My what?”
She smiled. “You’re not acting like much of a gentleman, are you? I could make a few jokes about the way you were raised—I could make hundreds of them—but that doesn’t change the fact that you should at least have suggested I get the couch. You could have offered the bed and you’d take the couch. Or maybe you just should offer to pay me a consultant’s fee to cover that hotel room even if I’m not using it at the moment.”
He felt Boots bumping him in the leg and bent down to pick him up. “I have another bedroom, but I didn’t figure you’d care for any of those offers. You never have before. Then again, you are here for longer than usual, so now would be the time to use it. You want to?”
“To share an apartment with you and your four cats?”
He glanced at Boots and shook his head. “No, I take it back. You can’t. Patchwork hasn’t forgiven you, and neither have I.”
She laughed. “If I wanted to stay here, no over exaggerated offense to your cat would stop me.”
“Oh, so you’d just force your way in, would you? You’d break the door or pick the lock and make yourself at home, would you?”
“It wouldn’t even take that much effort.”
“Excuse me? I have a secure home and an army of attack cats. They only look cute and fluffy. They’re real terrors, I tell you. Ambrose trained me, and I trained them and—”
Shaelynn kissed his cheek, and he stiffened, staring at her. She smiled. “Can I stay?”
“See?” She smirked and walked—no, she practically pranced, and Shaelynn did not prance—out of the room. He stared at where she’d been, knowing he’d just had one of the most surreal moments of his life. Not only was she never affectionate, but she didn’t tease like that. Never. Even when they were “married,” they’d been awkward at showing any kind of “affection,” at the most being able to hold hands—maybe one hug, that was it—and this was not something he would ever have expected from her. Forget what ever had supposedly unsettled him before—she did that. She’d thrown him completely off, and he needed more than a minute to wrap his head around that.
Boots hit him on the chest with a paw, and Nolan looked down at him. “You don’t want her to stay. We don’t. None of us.”
The cat blinked. He bit back a curse, shaking his head. “You’re saying that we do? All of us?”
Boots started purring. Nolan did curse, rather loudly, and he had to hope she hadn’t heard him because she would be laughing.
“You are insane. Tell me you didn’t honestly offer her the other room in your apartment,” Nora said, and Nolan frowned, looking behind her. She rolled her eyes, and he shrugged. She didn’t always shut the door when she wanted to throw these kinds of fits, and he wasn’t about to continue this conversation where Shaelynn might hear it.
“Why are you now so outraged? You’re the one that called her, aren’t you? If you didn’t want to have her around, why call her? That is such screwed up logic, and I can’t even begin to start unraveling that one. I’m not going to. You are on your own with that,” he told her, leaning back in his chair and trying to remember what he’d done with the Allens file. He hadn’t given it to Shaelynn—it was a case from after the trip, and he’d considered it none of her concern anyway.
She’d be angry about that, but she was still not going to get it from him.
“Don’t be an idiot,” Nora said, folding her arms over her chest. “You know what I mean. I’m talking about something you’ve been denying since you were maybe… fourteen. You are and always have been in—”
“Stop right there. Even if that allegation was true, that is not what the offer was about. I was just… She offered to help us fight off that damned takeover, and I said fine. So she is probably going to be around for a while. I made an off-hand comment, and she twisted it. I didn’t actually think she meant it. She doesn’t. She’s just using this to get under your skin and mine.”
Nora shook her head. “No, she isn’t. She just left to collect her stuff from her hotel and take it over to your place. She was going to ask for a spare key, but then she so conveniently remembered that she’d palmed yours.”
He reached down to pat his pockets, frowning as he did. He was missing his keys, and he’d never noticed that until now. He was slipping, badly, and while he’d like to excuse that on it being Shaelynn and all the past she brought with her, she wasn’t the only one who’d gotten past him lately, and there shouldn’t be any excuse for this. He had been the one that trained her to pickpocket, not Ambrose.
“She is already running circles around you. She manipulates you, and you let her. I can’t believe I thought calling her was a good idea.”
He shrugged. “She did manage to get me to sleep last night, so I suppose that’s something, but I don’t know that it makes as much of a difference as you’d hoped.”
Nora sighed. “I wanted her to fix you.”
“I know that.”
“I don’t want her breaking you again.”
He focused a harsh glare on his sister, not holding back the anger. “She has never broken me. No one broke me, not Boath for all his cult leader psychobabble, not Coman for all his attempts to please Boath by making more converts, and not Ambrose with all his drill sergeant tactics. Definitely not Shaelynn. I won’t say it didn’t hurt when she turned her back on the partnership and left, but she did not break me then, and she won’t do it now.”
“And when she leaves again after building up your hopes again? She is never going to stay. That would be like admitting her father was right to marry her off to you, and she won’t do that.”
Nolan found himself studying his hands. Truth was, he’d figured Ambrose was going to get Shaelynn when she got old enough, and Nolan had to do a lot of fast talking to convince Boath that she was a better choice for him than one of Boath’s wives that he felt like discarding, that they could have a house of soldiers and not necessarily one with a lot of children.
He felt that familiar disgust wash over him again, and he forced himself up from the desk. “She doesn’t have to stay. I have never asked her to, I won’t force her to, and I won’t be that bothered if she goes. Now if you will excuse me, that wonderful dose of memories you pulled up requires a very long, very hot shower. Damn it.”
He held up a hand. “Don’t. There is nothing you can say about what happened when we were younger that will make it okay. We all know that. What Boath did to us ruined us forever.”
“I thought you said he didn’t break you.”
Nolan almost laughed. “Something doesn’t have to be broken to be ruined, you know. Bent, stained, tarnished, torn… All of those work as well.”
“I think you need an office cat. You’re not as… frightening with them around. You even smile. Right now, I’m not sure you’re not going to kill yourself in the shower.”
“I’d make a comment about you standing guard, but you are not doing that to me. Ever.”
“I’ll check on you every five minutes. You better answer me.”