The Two Kingdoms - Chapter 12

Time passed. Years became decades that became centuries that became millenniums. In the days following the end of the Royal War—as most called it—Protea struggled hard to endure. It finally broke into smaller countries with nominated interim leaders who would govern over the world jointly until the day when the kingdoms could be reborn. That they would, they all knew. The brave souls who had approached the ruined Protea Kingdom palace had found the High Queen's abandoned crown hovering in the center of the grand throne room, protected by a column of darkness. The message seemed clear: the queen would return.

Losing the Ruler Cultivator had even further reaching effects for the magic that came with them had evaporated. Portalpads ceased all functionality, and so did any other device that ran on the magic pulled from the planet through its Ruler. Society did not collapse, but it certainly tripped flat and had to find new ways to recover and to do through other means what had once been done with magic.

Lucky for one and all, Protea had always been abundant with natural resources from its Flower Element of Nature. The sun itself could be harnessed as power, and so could water. Once a few enterprising souls discovered that lightning could be created in controlled ways, electricity became a thing and slowly began to improve lives to at least where they had been before the Royal War—but without space travel.

Traveling through space had too heavily relied on magic to be recovered easily, if ever. Worlds beyond Blossom Field could finally enter again, but they could not do anything to help for they also relied heavily on magic. All alliances remained as status quo, and people from beyond the galaxy did still visit, but the numbers dropped dramatically for few ships had the strength to return home again without a magical boost from Protea. Within a thousand years, the visits stopped entirely, and alliances entered into suspension until Ruler Cultivators returned once more.

As more millenniums began to pass, technology began to progress further. Science flourished. Lives changed significantly, but with such slowness that it sometimes took a few generations before people truly noticed the changes. By the time the sixth millennium of the Royal Era began, life had settled into a rhythm wholly different from the one of the first millennium, yet one that held peace.

No one at all believed any longer that Nemesis or Famine could ever return; some even doubted they had ever existed! Even the Cultivators themselves and the former kingdoms became little more than a myth or legend. Only the interim leaders of the world held onto the knowledge of exactly what had happened, and they passed from generation to generation the needed facts of what had once been and what would once be again. When the Ruler Cultivators of the worlds returned, and the worlds awoke from their frozen sleep, the leaders would willingly give control back to the ones it rightfully belonged to, and the descendants of those who had fled the other worlds would finally get to go home.

In December of Royal Era 5079, Protea finally took a real breath again, and the false Seed disappeared as magic welled. The magic was picked up by sensors as a quake of sorts, and while no one really knew why it had happened, the leaders figured it out quickly: a Ruler Cultivator had been born anew. Two weeks shy of a year later, a second quake occurred, but it came much more powerfully than the first. The other Ruler Cultivator of Protea had been born anew as well. A quiet search was made, yet no one ever found these two children of the planet. And so it happened that life continued on like normal, as if literally life-changing events had not been set into motion again.

Almost five years passed from the day of the second quake without much to show for it other than the perhaps not-unexpected sudden overabundance of Nature power that particularly effused the city of Lux on the largest landmass of Protea that had once held the capitol of the world. It had been known enough for its quantity of parks, but one park in particular really took off. The section of the garden where the namesake protea blossoms grew went a little crazy, and they took over most every surface. Gardeners just worked around them, and visitors were all but begged to cut some and take them home.

Little Siobhan Toulume loved the protea flowers almost as much as she loved delphinium ones. She approached her fifth birthday very soon, and so had asked her mother to take her and her only slightly elder brother to the park to see the flowers. There happened to be a delphinium section butted right up against the protea one, which made Siobhan very happy. It made her brother happy, too, and their own presence made others happy as well—they looked a bit like a white delphinium personally!

Both brother and sister had fluffy, curly, white hair matched to pale gold eyes. Siobhan had a bit of plumpness to her body that her brother mostly shared; his higher activity levels meant he had a bit more streamlined look. The two could easily be mistaken for twins despite Rocky being rather taller than his sister; she had a petite height contrasted to his taller than average one. There was, in fact, a whole month of the year where they were the same age, so even their mother would often just call them twins and skip the explanations. She and her late husband had never figured it out either.

Siobhan saw Rocky and their mother gathering flowers in a basket and so wandered off on her own toward the protea section. She knew that as long as she did not leave the park, she could wander most anywhere. She found what she wanted and started gathering up an armful of the pretty black protea flowers into a bouquet. At the sound of a low growl, her eyes slowly widened and she hastily swung around.

A large dog—larger than herself—had planted himself in the path and watched her menacingly. His low growls vibrated on the air. Siobhan's eyes began to well with tears as she clutched her flowers and pressed back against the bush. She could not find her voice to yell for help, and while she knew her brother just always knew if she needed help, she felt afraid for him to come running and get hurt.

Her eyes slammed shut as the dog started to lunge, but when she heard a surprising whine instead of a growl, she cautiously opened her eyes again. They then widened even further as she realized another girl almost her brother's height had planted herself in the path between dog and victim. Siobhan could only stare. The other girl looked like the very protea blossoms she held! Long, fine black hair with a glossy sheen, and the look she sent over her shoulder came from pretty pink eyes. "Uhm." It was all she could manage.

The other girl nodded at her firmly. "It's okay." She walked fearlessly to the dog who whined again and then sniffed at her. His ears came up and his tail thumped happily on the ground as she patted his head. All hints of danger evaporated. "See?" the girl said. She turned a smile on Siobhan as bright as the sun. "He's okay. He just got scared, too. Come here."

Siobhan felt a surge of bravery as if this girl had just given it to her. "Okay." She walked over to the dog and got sniffed in turn. He then licked her face, and she giggled. "He's nice!" She hugged the dog with her free arm. "You're a good puppy. I'm not mad." He scampered off merrily, and she turned to her new friend. After a moment, she held out the bouquet. "I'm Siobhan!"

Shana Chivanti looked at the smaller girl and then the bouquet, and then smiled. "Shana." She took the bouquet happily. She loved protea flowers best, though she loved all plants and flowers and animals almost equally. Delphiniums did sort of run a close second, so she liked how this other girl looked. She thought they might be the same age, but couldn't be sure because the girl looked very small. "I'm almost five."

Siobhan brightened. "I'm almost five!" She threw her arms around Shana's neck in a happy hug that made her new friend look at her a bit wide-eyed. "Oh. No hug?"

Shana shook her head. "I don't mind." She just wasn't quite used to spontaneous emotion from strangers, even though, strangely, this girl really did not feel like a stranger at all. She felt a little like a sister. She would know; she had an only slightly elder brother to judge by.

Speaking of. The bushes rustled and a boy who looked enough like her to be a twin, if shorter, came hurrying onto the scene. He was not alone. Rocky came scooting around the bushes from the other direction, and both boys skidded to a stop in sheer relief at seeing their sisters just fine.

"Rocky!" Siobhan ran to her brother and held his hand. "That's Shana! A dog scared me, and she made it a friend!"

Edgar Chivanti sighed as he took Shana's hand. "Again?"

She smiled at him. "All doggies are puppies to me. He was just scared." She hugged his arm and then looked at the boy beside Siobhan. He looked very like his sister, yet . . . just seemed more beautiful to her. She felt oddly happy just being around him. Like Siobhan, he did not feel new. She glanced at Edgar's face to see him looking at Siobhan much the same way, and decided maybe it was just because of the flowers they liked.

For their own part, Siobhan had been utterly enchanted by Edgar, as much as if not more than she had with Shana. Rocky liked Edgar enough, to be sure, but his eyes could not quite move from the tall girl beside him. She looked . . . a little haunted, maybe. Like something in her eyes hurt. He wanted to hug her, and after a brief thought, he walked over and did so.

Shana's eyes went slowly wide. Like brother, like sister, but Rocky's hug made her feel . . . much safer. Even more than if her mom or dad or brother hugged her. "Hi?"

He let go and grinned at her. "Hi. You needed a hug." He then hugged Edgar, who looked just as surprised. "You too."

The two Chivanti siblings looked at one another and then started laughing. Siobhan giggled in turn and then, not to be left out, she hurried over to hug Edgar as well. He looked as flummoxed as his sister for a moment and then hugged her back.

By the time Octavia Toulume found the four, they had sat down on the ground near the blossoms and were talking animatedly. Siobhan finished making a wreath of protea blossoms and plopped it on top of Shana's head; Edgar already wore one. Octavia could only sigh. Leave it to her kids to make new friends anywhere. "Found you!"

Siobhan and Rocky alike brightened and scrambled up to run over and hug her. Shana and Edgar studied her curiously and then smiled because she reminded them of their mom, except she looked like her kids, and Shana and Edgar looked like their father. "Hi," Edgar said. "I'm Edgar. My sister is Shana."

Octavia knelt down to be closer to their height. "Hello to you both!" she said warmly. She fought an urge to pick them up and snuggle, if only because they had just met. "I'm Octavia. Where are your parents, young ones?" She almost said 'little ones' but with Shana almost the same height as her own very tall son, she refrained.

"Not far," Shana promised her. She got to her feet and then tugged Edgar up as those same parents started calling their names. She hesitated, as did her brother, as both looked at Rocky and Siobhan. The other two already had tears in their eyes at saying goodbye. Finally, both dark haired siblings ran off to find their parents.

As the first tears rolled down Siobhan's face, Octavia wiped at them. "Baby. What's wrong?"

"I don't wanna say goodbye," Siobhan sniffled. "I wanna see them again!"

Rocky looked just as miserable, so Octavia scooped up Siobhan before taking his hand to go see if she could find the other family. Unfortunately, she found nothing. They had moved pretty quickly. With both of her children now crying, she felt a little upset herself. "I'll keep looking," she promised. "There was something oddly familiar about them, actually, so maybe I know their parents already."

A month ticked by, however, without anything coming of her search. Siobhan had her fifth birthday, and very clearly did not enjoy it as much as she might have had her two new friends been in attendance. She and Rocky tried very hard not to pester their mother, and asked all they met about 'the boy and girl with protea eyes', yet nothing worked.

Only a few days after Siobhan's birthday, she and Rocky were playing in the backyard of their house when Siobhan felt . . . something surge inside her body. Something hot and wonderful and yet odd but not foreign. She tripped over her own feet and landed smack on the ground. Rocky tripped over his own feet in his haste to get to her side, but when he finally knelt beside her, she looked fine. "Siobhan?"

She slowly held up her hands and whorls of gradated white-gold color began to move down her arms to her palms where they coalesced into the form of a white mask. It looked somehow familiar to both children, and it resembled their beloved white delphinium flower as well. As Rocky reached out to touch it, something stirred inside both their minds. Something that felt like memories. Flashes and snippets of sound and color and emotion flew past their eyes. Another world. Another time. A kingdom. And amid all of it, others around them. Ten others, but two stood out most: two other royal children . . . with protea eyes.

"What is it?" Siobhan whispered.

"I don't know," Rocky whispered back.

Another month ticked by, and Shana likewise had her fifth birthday. Luckily for the introverted child, her parents abided by her wishes and kept the party extremely low-key and small. Shana and Edgar badly wanted to have Siobhan and Rocky there, but their father had been unable to figure out who the two children were or where they lived. Even having their mother's name did not help, since neither Shana nor Edgar seemed to be able to say it right, and each time they tried, it came out different.

A week went by before Shana found herself playing in the large gardens of her family's home. They lived in the very large manor in the mountains just outside of Lux, and her father traveled to and from his company nearly every day. Sometimes the two siblings could go in with him, other times they stayed home. Because of Shana's extremely advanced intelligence, she and her brother got to have tutoring at home rather than go to normal school. She had a capacity to learn and remember that baffled more than one person, which lent itself to why people were so surprised she could not remember the name of that mysterious mother and children she had met. It felt strangely deliberate somehow.

As she sat on a bench to watch fauna wander by—they could not be kept out of the gardens or away from either child, so no one even tried—she felt a stirring inside her body. A surge of something that felt familiar yet different, but not at all foreign. Even as she noticed it, her brother came running up to her side. He had just felt something from her. She slowly lifted her hands and a gradated black-pink color swirled down her arms to form into a mask. It felt, and looked, familiar, and it resembled their favorite black protea flower.

Something flashed through their minds equally. Snippets and sounds and color, memories of a distant time. A kingdom. Others around them, protecting them. Two in particular stood out: two children with delphinium eyes. Shana looked at Edgar, and him at her, and they both frowned. They did not understand, and they had no way of finding the other two to ask if they did.

"Shana! Edgar!" came their mother's voice. "Time to go with your dad to town!"

Shana had no idea what to do with the mask, but to her surprise, it seemed to disappear somewhere. She shook it off and ran with Edgar through the gardens and then the manor to the front outside. Their father was already in the electric carriage—EC or carriage for short—and their mother waited to help get them fastened in.

Electric carriages ran on solar or electrical power and were vehicular devices people could ride to travel long distances. Models came in single, double, or up to five-person versions. They were normally very safe—as much as anything a few thousand pounds moving at top speeds could be—but accidents still happened from either sheer foolishness or just terrible timing. For that reason, they actually had their own lanes separate of cycles or pedestrians. Some streets separated them by wide painted lines, and others by outright fences or barriers. Housing spaces, by nature of the laws requiring slow speeds, tended to be more likely to just paint out lines.

Their father happened to be one of the very good drivers, and both kids felt comfortable riding in the backseat. Shana watched out the windows as trees and the like zipped by. It felt a bit like flying, which she had always wanted to do.

For all of time thereafter, she would legitimately be able to say she did not remember what happened next. Something made a horrific screeching noise, and she heard her mother scream. Edgar cried out. Metal crunched, and suddenly she just didn't see anything at all. But things hurt. She could feel them hurting even in her unconsciousness. She stirred only enough to hear loud whistles and people yelling, and maybe the sound of fire, and she felt unfamiliar arms carrying her. She could hear Edgar calling her name. She tried to open her eyes but just could not.

Something jostled her, and everything hurt fresh with blinding pain. She instantly went under anew. There would be no relief in her sleep, however. There never was. Always under the surface lurked the nightmares that plagued her short life. Why could she never escape them? And would whatever had just happened become a new one? She didn't know.

The paramedics on the scene of the horrific accident found very fast that Edgar could not be separated from his sister. Somehow he had escaped with little more than a minor concussion and a fractured forearm, but Shana had been hurt far worse. Edgar could not be pried from her side, so finally the paramedics put them onto the same medical carriage together. They even put them on the adult-sized stretcher so he could lay next to her. She looked a bit horrific herself, covered from head to toe in bloody bandages, and her arm and leg alike splinted. No one had told Edgar that their parents hadn't survived; his focus had so narrowed to just his sister that they doubted he would notice. Perhaps, in a way, that could be a blessing. They could delay the inevitable terrible news.

At the hospital, the two were given the same room. Shana had not actually woken, but because her vital signs were as stable as could be expected, none of the nurses or doctors tried to bring her around. Edgar had his own bed, but almost as soon as the temporary nurse left the room, he crawled out of it and instead into the bed with his sister. He hugged her tight with his good arm. Her pain seemed to be stabbing inside his own body and he couldn't bear it. Desperate longing to make it all better rose hotly inside him, and suddenly he hurt a lot more—but she didn't. The pain he felt became more his own and less from her. Her breathing even sounded better. He tightened his grip briefly and then closed his eyes. She couldn't leave him. Never ever. They needed each other, and now more than ever. They had no one else left.

Octavia worked as a pediatric nurse, and served as an on-call emergency one with it. She would get called in to be assigned to particular children in need of personalized and direct care. When she got the call that an EC accident had killed two parents and both children had been badly hurt—especially the daughter—she immediately threw down everything she had been doing, dropped Siobhan and Rocky at their babysitter, and rushed to the hospital. She was still fastening on her badge as she walked through the doors of the pediatric intensive care. "Tell me everything," she said briskly as she took the offered clipboard.

The male nurse nodded swiftly. "Two kids. Both five, but not twins. The boy turns six in a week. Names are Shana and Edgar Chivanti."

Her head came up quickly. "Chivanti?"

He nodded again. "Yeah. Chivanti Corporation is about to go into a nosedive unless the board of trustees grabs hold fast and efficiently. Randall Chivanti and his wife were in that carriage, and they died on scene. The kids are theirs."

Sudden dots began to connect for Octavia. A brother and sister of the right age, named Edgar and Shana, who had looked familiar to her. Of course they had; few didn't know the Chivanti Corporation since they all but ran not just Lux but most of the landmass. Randall himself had black hair and pink eyes, which must have been what had stuck in her mind. "What room?"


She hurried down the hall a bit faster than she might have normally, and when she peeked into the room, tears welled in her eyes. Sure enough, two familiar children awaited her inside, though both looked in far worse shape than she remembered. Edgar seemed intact enough, but Shana looked particularly miserable. She always hated seeing children hurt, which was why she had gone into her field of work, but these two . . . they got to her as much as her own did.

Edgar's eyes opened at hearing the door, and when he looked at her a bit defiantly, she walked further into the lamplight. "Hello, Edgar," she said softly. "Remember me? I'm Octavia Toulume, Siobhan and Rocky's mother. I'm your nurse now. You can stay by Shana as long as you're not hurting yourself, okay?"

The sheer relief he felt at seeing a familiar, and welcome, face made tears briefly sting his eyes that he blinked away. "She hurts," he whispered. "Can you make it better?"

"Well, I can do my best." She walked over and moved him to the other bed briefly so she could check on Shana. As she pressed a hand to the girl's forehead, groggy pink eyes opened. She smiled. "Hi there, sweetheart. Remember me?" She got a little nod in response, and her heart ached as Shana turned her face into her hand. "I'm going to take care of you and Edgar now. Everything will be okay."

She administered medicine as needed, read stories, and held both when she finally had to deliver the news about their parents. They did not cry as much as she had expected, but it had not taken long to realize both had as much a propensity to keep that inside as her own two had to just be open.

She got home after the first day and found Siobhan and Rocky waiting for her. They always rushed to hug her after she got home from an emergency call, because they knew she needed it. She did not always get to save all of the children she cared about. "Are they okay?" Siobhan whispered against her mother's neck.

"Well, I think they will be. But . . . would you two like to see them?" She had made the decision on the way home to ask. Shana and Edgar felt so damn alone, and they had literally been left alone. No other family members could be found. Yet they knew Siobhan and Rocky, and if they felt anything like her children did, they would be happy at the reunion.

"Can we?" Rocky asked.

"Of course. It's not against the rules. And it might be good for Siobhan to visit the hospital as something other than a patient." A terribly sad but true statement as her little girl had a horrific immune system and seemed to catch literally every passing disease. She had spent almost as much time in the hospital as she had anywhere else, which had also lent itself toward Octavia's job choice. Oddly, Rocky himself literally never got sick ever, so perhaps he had inherited his sister's share. Either way, the hospital would not be unfamiliar territory to them, though the circumstances would. She took one of their hands in each of hers. "Siobhan . . . Rocky . . . the two children . . . it's Shana and Edgar."

Tears immediately welled in both sets of gold eyes, and then Siobhan fiercely and adamantly shook them off. "Take us tomorrow!" she demanded. "We'll help! They need us! Shana needs me to save her, 'cause she saved me! I wanna see Edgar!"

Rocky nodded just as fiercely. "We can help them! We make them happy, too! We can be their family! They'll be okay, because we'll be there to make sure!"

Octavia gathered them both close on a smile. "My little eternal optimists. If willpower alone can make things happen, they'll both be healed in no time."

She took them the very next day, and she knew her instincts had been spot on, as the moment Shana and Edgar saw the two in the doorway, they visibly brightened. "I brought someone special to see you," she said warmly.

Siobhan dashed across the room and climbed up onto the bed beside Shana. Tears welled and spilled down her face as she looked at the myriad of bruises and bandages covering the other girl as well as the sling on her broken left arm, and the cast on her broken left leg. Gently, carefully, she hugged Shana around the neck. "Does it hurt?" she asked softly.

Shana shook her head a bit. "Not a lot."

"You're lying." Edgar frowned as he said it from where he sat in his own bed. Rocky had climbed up to sit beside him. Unlike his sister, Edgar had already begun to heal quickly. His broken forearm had just a splint rather than a cast. "You hurt. I can feel it."

Octavia found no surprise in that, actually. Rocky and Siobhan often shared their pain between them as well. She chalked it up to the oddity of them being so close and all but literal twins. "Well," she said, looking at the charts," she can have more medicine now. I'll get it."

"No, it doesn't hurt that much anymore," Shana reiterated. She smiled, almost hesitantly. "It doesn't hurt when Siobhan is hugging me. I think she's magic."

Siobhan nodded firmly. "Then I'll keep hugging you!" She looked at Octavia fretfully. "Can we stay with them?"

"Please?" Rocky added. He itched to hug Shana as well, but instead held onto Edgar's hand because Shana, clearly, needed Siobhan more right then. Edgar didn't look nearly as bad, and didn't feel as bad either. He and Siobhan could just take turns hugging and cuddling the other two, making sure both would get better faster. As he watched Shana, however, he could just feel as if he couldn't breathe deep enough. It looked a bit like maybe she couldn't either, so he took a long breath that steadied him anew. Curiously . . . Shana almost immediately started doing the same.

Octavia looked at Shana, at Rocky, and then back again. She then looked at one of the few visible marks on Shana, and she could actually see it seeming to fade before her eyes. Magic? Maybe it was, though magic had been lost for millennia. As a nurse and a born caregiver, she didn't really mind how it happened. Just that it did. "Alright," she said firmly. "You can stay. I'll be on call almost all day anyway, in case Shana or Edgar need me."

It took less than a day for the doctors and other nurses who would stop by to check on the children to realize that both Siobhan and Rocky alike had a powerful impact on Shana, and that trying to make either of them sleep in the cot brought in was a futile effort. They took turns snuggling up against either Chivanti sibling while they slept, always staying very close by. If Siobhan was the one doing the snuggling, Shana quickly and almost visibly healed faster. If Rocky was the one doing the snuggling instead, Shana's entire system stabilized and she didn't struggle to get air through her bruised lungs and ribs.

It took only two days for her to be in such good condition that she and Edgar moved out of intensive care into a normal room. Octavia couldn't bear to part with them, and they very badly didn't want anyone else caring for them, so she requested and received the assignment to continue serving as their nurse. As far as the hospital was concerned, the health and well-being of their patients mattered most. If the Toulume family as a whole could ensure these two children healed entirely and could move on with their lives, anything was on the table.

Octavia, though, did start doing some other rounds since the more the two children healed, the less direct observation they needed. She instead set them up with games and a Visuality so they had entertainment on demand. Visualities were large devices that ran on electrical and solar power to get audio and visual signals from varying studios that produced episodic shows and full-length theatrical productions for entertainment. Over a hundred channels existed in the Lux area, not including the fifty that were world-wide, and at least one always had on something suitably fun for children.

A smaller device called a Personal Phone System, or PPS for short, worked almost the same way but allowed direct communication between people who had shared their personal codes. Octavia always had hers on hand for obvious reasons, and she found herself glad there was no limit on the number of calls she could make or receive since she shortly discovered she needed to make a lot.

She had fallen head over heels in love with Shana and Edgar, and she could not stand the idea of watching them go into the children's Care House. They would be well-provided for, obviously, but they would not get the same sort of love she could give. She had noticed very quickly that they craved love as deeply as they could give it, rather like her own kids, and she wanted to give them a new home together.

Unfortunately . . . as soon as she contacted the government to start the process, she encountered an unexpected blockage. The board of trustees from the Chivanti Corporation had put a request in as a sort of stop-order to any potential adoption of the Chivanti heirs, claiming that they would be better off in the Care House.

"What sort of bullshit is that?" Octavia muttered as she stared at her PPS. She had gone outside to the break area to take the call, and her shoulders slumped as she dropped her head onto her arms on the table in front of her. Tears burned her eyes. "What is wrong with them?" she whispered. "Why would they possibly think the Care House better than a loving home? Don't take it personally, they said. I'm a great parent, they said. But I'm not 'good enough'? How?!"

Someone sat down at the table across from her, and she looked up quickly. A somewhat taller than average woman had joined her, and her lavender eyes held warmth as they sparkled against her bronze skin. Pink hair the color of delicate statice blossoms fell over her shoulder in a loose braid. She wore relatively casual clothes, yet she exuded an air that felt nearly royal. She also looked very unfamiliar.

"I'm sorry, was I too loud?" Octavia asked hesitantly.

The woman shook her head. "Not at all. I came looking for you. My name is Clara Memoria. I caught wind of the events, Octavia, and I would like to help."

Octavia just sighed. "How can you possibly help, Clara? I'm up against some people who have a lot more money and a lot more power than I do. If I want to fight that stop-order, I need to prove that I am the best choice for Shana and Edgar. But I can't do that alone, and I just don't have the money to hire a legal advisor with the bravery to confront the Corporation!"

Clara smiled. "What would you say if I told you that I myself am a legal advisor, and that not only do I have more than enough courage, but also the skill and sheer stubbornness to make anything happen as I want it to."

"I'd say I probably can't afford you."

"No charge." She shook her head as she received a surprised look. "This is . . . personal to me, Octavia. Those children you love . . . I might love them more than you do. Let me help you help them. I want nothing more than to see them be happy."

The note Octavia heard in her voice was one she had honestly never heard before. A powerful chord of love so deep and true that perhaps nothing could ever remove it. Her lips trembled as she smiled. "Then I'll accept whatever help you can give." She hesitated, and then went with her instincts. "Clara . . . is Siobhan healing Shana?"

"Oh, to be sure. Love and hope make great healing forces."

Octavia had a feeling she had not actually gotten the real answer she had sought, yet she had gotten more than enough of one to appease her. "Would you like to see them?"

"I'd love that."

Oddly, Octavia did not at all feel surprised to see all four children, especially the girls, react to Clara as if they had been reunited with a long-lost friend. She also felt no surprise that Shana's introverted don't-touch-me-unless-I-say-so personality effectively evaporated and she wanted to be cuddled by Clara as much as, if not more, than Octavia. Her future mother felt no jealousy over such a thing, though. She could see they had a special bond, and she treasured it. Anything that could make her four children happy was fine by her.

Clara took over the fight against the stop-order and the board, and in less than a few days, she had removed the former and unexpectedly cowed the latter. They backed off so quickly and immediately that it felt almost suspect, but Octavia refused to dismiss her change of luck. Clara also stepped in to take care of anything else needed for the two Chivanti heirs, including handling the details of their parents' estate, getting the trust fund their parents had made for them active and operational, and putting together a hefty package of information that held all details of their father's will that would not be effective until both turned twenty-five.

In regards to that last item, she sat down for a lengthy conversation with the siblings that Octavia did not attend, and after it, both seemed to have a renewed energy and positive outlook. Unusual for the little pessimists, but not unwelcome. They took the package of information and had Octavia put it away in her home security box, and she did not ask any questions. If they did not want to tell her, she would not ask. She also made sure they knew that if they wanted to keep quiet on their connection to the Corporation, she would stand by that decision. That turned out to be their preference, so even Siobhan and Rocky did not get told the real facts. They just knew their new family members had money from their parents, and that was it.

One month after the accident, Octavia got to take Shana and Edgar home with her. Edgar's arm had entirely healed, and he looked no different than before the accident. Shana's arm had healed up entirely, and nearly all her wounds had gone away, but a few that had needed stitches still had some healing left to do, and she had to use crutches because her leg needed a cast for another month. She proved unexpectedly dexterous on them, and navigated fast and confidently. Watching her scoot up the steps, Octavia said dryly, "You and Edgar are as graceful as Siobhan and Rocky are clumsy! It's like you four are completely polar opposites, not just in appearance but in personality and physically too."

"That's why we're friends!" Siobhan said cheerfully. She knew better than to run up the stairs so moved slowly. She got to the top and tried to run up to meet Shana, but only tripped over her own feet. Edgar seemed to appear from out of nowhere, and he caught her safely. She couldn't help but happily hug him in turn. She did really love Shana lots and lots, but she really loved Edgar more. As much as she loved her brother, actually, but somehow . . . different. She did not mind that since she knew Rocky felt the same about Shana. They could figure it out eventually.

Octavia led the way down the hall toward the bedrooms. "Siobhan and Rocky have their own rooms, and the room I had been using as a study could be a bedroom. It's up to you four how you want to split things."

A look exchanged among the four kids. Siobhan really wanted to ask Shana to share her room, but felt shy about pushing for it when she knew Shana deserved to choose for herself. Likewise, Rocky felt the same about Edgar. Oddly, the two Toulumes might have been the extroverts, but they could be painfully shy sometimes. The two Chivantis were introverts without a shy bone in their body, though they did hesitate if they felt something too strongly.

Shana looked at Siobhan's face and then took her new sister's hand, nimbly balancing on just one crutch. "Can I stay with you?" she asked with a smile.

Edgar nodded at Rocky. "I'll stay with you, okay?"

Siobhan and Rocky visibly brightened. "Okay!" both said in almost the same voice. Siobhan then frowned at her mother. "But . . . Shana and Edgar need clothes." And it went without saying that Shana would assuredly not be able to share Siobhan's, nor would Edgar be able to share Rocky's.

"That's covered," Octavia promised. She grinned. "Most of their things will be delivered from their home very soon, and we can go shopping for anything else." She knelt down to everyone's height, and her heart ached as all four moved to hold onto her tightly. "Welcome home," she murmured as she kissed first Edgar and then Shana's foreheads. "Welcome home." She really owed Clara more than could be repaid, but the advisor had all but disappeared from the face of the world. Magic, she thought again. Maybe it really had come back to Protea after all.

©Stacy J. Garrett. Do not reprint or redistribute without permission.

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