Shana had fully healed and recovered from the ordeal within another month. She almost immediately began pestering her new mother to take training and classes in all manner of physical sports. Varying types of hand or foot combat, dance of different styles, and even weaponry. Octavia felt utterly flabbergasted by the requests but gave in and let Shana try out a few. She took to them instantly, with a born skill that rattled even her instructors. She would master just about anything within a year if given a chance. She craved learning, and like a sponge absorbed everything thrown at her.
Not to be left out, Edgar and Rocky immediately began demanding to take the same classes. That actually did not surprise Octavia since she had expected the two boys, on basis of personality, to want to keep up with Shana. Edgar proved nearly as naturally skilled as his sister, and while Rocky did not have the same natural skill, his sheer stubborn determination and hard work meant he kept pace anyway. Siobhan had no desire to learn to fight, and she instead tagged along with a first aid kit. Her most important job was to patch them together when they inevitably got hurt.
War never happened on Protea, but people could still do terrible things to each other, so combat training was not that unheard of, even for children. Additionally, the further away from a city you got, the more likely you would be to start encountering very dangerous wildlife. Some could be dangerous enough that not even the most skilled trackers sought their footprints as trophies.
It took barely a year for Shana to start mastering things and begin moving on to more. No one could stop her, so even her instructors kept on pushing her toward more in an effort to find her limits. Quite simply . . . she had none. She would be a walking weapon before adulthood, and not even Octavia actually felt bothered by it. It just seemed to fit her, somehow.
Even after a year of living together, the four kids had not actually told one another about the masks the girls had found, or the fact that all four of them had started discovering they had magic. Real magic. It just did not occur to mention it, or to bring up those odd maybe-memories all had shared. They just loved too much being around each other to spare it a thought.
Things changed not long after Shana and Siobhan turned six. Very shortly after Edgar's subsequent seventh birthday, the young prince accidentally fell out of a tree in the park while trying to retrieve Siobhan's wayward kite. He landed hard, and wrong, and did more than a bit of damage to his ankle along the way. As the other three scrambled to his side, he bit back a wince of pain and held out the kite. "Got it!"
"You're hurt!" Siobhan shouted at him. "I didn't want you to get hurt!" She looked at his red and swelling ankle, and agony welled up inside her. She couldn't handle it. She couldn't handle her most important people being hurt. Her fingers touched the swelling gingerly, and a swirl of white-gold magic swept down her arm. The healing power lessened the swelling instantly and mended all damage underneath.
Edgar stared at his ankle and then at Siobhan. "Magic," he said softly. "You have it too?"
"Too?" Rocky echoed. A vine suddenly climbed down the tree and offered a delphinium blossom to him. His head jerked around toward Shana and he found black-pink swirling around her hand. It looked warm and safe, and somehow made her more beautiful. "You have it, Shana?"
She nodded, and then smiled. "But I'm not that good. That's all I can really do right now. Edgar has magic, too. More than me, but not a super lot. Mostly we can do things with plants, and animals. Him plants, me animals. I mean, I can do stuff with plants, too, but he's much better than me. Can you?"
Rocky reached out, and white and pink magic moved over his fingers to form an illusion of a protea blossom. He offered it to Shana, and when she took it, it dissolved into little pink fireflies that flew around her head almost like a crown. "Not as much as Siobhan," he admitted, "but I can make things. Sometimes if I make them enough, they become real." He brightened visibly. "So we all have magic! We're all alike!"
Edgar nodded firmly. "We can practice together!"
Shana and Siobhan, though happy enough about all of them sharing magic, still exchanged a quick look. They just felt . . . uneasy, for some reason.
Red and gold magic suddenly swirled around all of them and left little glass balls in their hands that held either protea or delphinium blossoms in the very center. All four heads turned quickly, and they found a girl not much older than either boy standing just a few feet away. Short red hair framed a face set with yellow-gold eyes and ivory skin, and she just felt familiar. More importantly, however, not only did she have magic, but in her hands she held a mask as well. A red and gold one that resembled a carnation as strongly as she did.
Virginia Tungsten could see the familiarity in their eyes, so walked forward and said, "I'm Virginia. And . . . I need to explain to you about your magic, your Masks, and some . . . really amazing stuff."
The explanation could not be brief, though she tried to keep it to the most important things. She had been given intact memories the moment she found her Mask, and she had known that, as Lead Defender, it would be her duty to guide her princes and queens. It did surprise her a bit that they would have such utterly fuzzy memories of their own, yet she did not feel bad for it. There were a lot of things she would happily put off Siobhan and Shana knowing until absolutely necessary. Other things could be revealed as years passed.
"So we're . . . Apexes and queens." Siobhan looked at the sky. Though Delphinium could not be seen at that moment, she would be able to see it in the evening. The frozen world no one really knew anything about, and the ruined kingdom on its surface. A kingdom so very like the ruins of the one on Protea. She and Rocky always felt a pain and a longing when they saw Delphinium, and now she knew why.
Virginia nodded. "The lost High Queens that people don't think really existed. But you do. And the other worlds, the other kingdoms, are still frozen and healing. My own of Carnation follows behind Delphinium." She stepped closer and smiled. "I want to show you something." She tugged down the collar of her shirt to reveal the softly glowing carnation blossom on her chest over her heart. Another shimmered into appearance on her arm. The one on her chest had a single blossom while the one on her arm had two blossoms, and all had sparkling edges. "These are my Flower Marks. You have them too, just hiding."
Ever fearless, Shana reached out not unlike how she had reached for her Mask, and her own Flower Marks appeared. Unlike Virginia, both her Marks only had one blossom, and they also had a crown wrapped around the middle. Only the one on her arm had a sparkling edge, yet only around the blossom itself and not the crown. The other three reached out as well and found other differences. Siobhan's Marks matched to Shana's perfectly other than being a delphinium and her crowns being white instead of black, but their brothers only had normal Flower Marks on their chest.
"You're only Ruler Cultivators," Virginia told the two princes. "And those Marks don’t sparkle because there's more than one of you. Siobhan and Shana have crowns because they are Apexes." She shook her head. "We can talk about that much later. Not important now." She nodded firmly. "But the Masks? They and the Mark on your left arm mean you are also Defender Cultivators like me. We fight evil when it comes, just like they say in legends. And it will come. Because we exist, it will come. So we will train and work hard and be ready." She took a breath and braced her shoulders. Memory told her a fight was inevitable at the immediate moment. "I am Lead Defender. That means I'm the strongest of us eight who protect the High Queens and High Princes. I am the leader. And as leader, I say that I don't want either of you to put on your Masks without a choice."
Siobhan thought a moment and then nodded. "Okay. Because you mean well."
Shana, however, narrowed her eyes ever so slightly. "If evil comes, I'll fight."
Despite being several inches shorter, Virginia immediately went toe-to-toe with the other girl. "No, you won't." Her chin set and her eyes narrowed as she saw Shana scowl. "I said no."
"And I don't have to do what you say. You're not stronger than me, or Siobhan. I am a Defender, right, so I will help."
The feeling of frustration seemed quite familiar to Virginia. Torn between the urge to defer to the stronger Cultivator, yet driven to protect her queen at all costs. "Only if there is something only you can do. You're stronger, okay, but I'm supposed to protect you."
Shana hesitated, thought, and then nodded. "Okay. I know you need to protect me, and that's okay even if I don't need it."
Edgar and Rocky shared a brief, almost wry, smile as they felt as much déjà vu as Virginia did. Strange how those words sounded so familiar. Maybe some things just could not change no matter what. After a moment, all wished away their Marks, and the two Masks got stuck into backpacks. Calling was easy; sending back not so much.
"Where can we find the others?" Siobhan asked Virginia eagerly. "Can we look for them?"
Virginia shook her head on a smile and then took one of Shana and Siobhan's hands in each of hers. "I found them! Come with me, okay? There's someone you really need to see first." She tugged them along deeper into the park, and called, "Sherry! Lexie! Look who I found!"
Two other girls, one as tall as Shana and the other slightly taller than Siobhan, looked over from where they had been sitting on a bench. The shorter had long orange hair, fiery yellow eyes, and light brown skin. The taller had fair skin covered with freckles, short blue hair, and cloudy white eyes. Sherry Darnigan and Alexandria Urias looked first at Virginia calling their names and then at the four other children she had brought. Pain and love and loneliness welled inside their hearts and souls before it could be stopped.
Shana and Siobhan alike stopped dead in their tracks as they looked at the other two. Love. It consumed them wholly. As much as they felt for the boys in their lives. Tears began to run down Siobhan's face and she dashed forward to jump onto Sherry to hug her fiercely. Shana couldn't move, visibly hesitating, so Alexandria walked over to hug her instead. At the feel of her arms, Shana's lower lip quivered and then she burrowed closer against her twin soul.
Virginia felt very happy with the scene. Nothing made her happier than to make her queens or princes happy, so reuniting them with their twin souls had been her first priority. "We know the other Cultivators, too," she promised. "And we'll meet them soon, okay?"
The others turned out to be Desiree Rikavet, Yvonne Kingfisher, Juliet Dario, Kellie Yu . . . and Clara Memoria. Shana and Siobhan did not feel surprised by Clara being the Statice Dual Cultivator. It made lots of sense, especially since she, just like all the others, physically resembled her patron flower. They both looked and felt familiar to all four High heirs, burned deeply into even their fuzziest memories of the past. Strangely, oddly, they actually remembered the other Cultivators far better than they remembered each other, but Virginia adamantly refused to tell them why that would be, instead insisting again that they would get more answers when they were older, and some of them they might figure out on their own.
Octavia did not get clued in to any of the life-changing events, or the reality of the existences of her children and their new friends. She just accepted the fact that there were suddenly seven big sisters to help keep an eye on the younger four and shook her head. Younger seemed a misnomer as the seven girls were technically all born the same year as Rocky and Edgar, but they just acted like protective big sisters, so the boys conceded to being the 'baby brothers.' At least they had their own little sisters. Shana, the overall youngest, took her role with good enough nature since she was and probably would always be the tallest other than Alexandria and Rocky. Seemed fair enough to her.
Happy years went by. Shana continued to merrily master anything she wanted to learn, and Alexandria and Virginia tagged along to many of her classes as well. Sherry did, too, and Juliet did on occasion. Siobhan got plenty of practice with her healing magic thanks to them, and on the down low where no one could see, she and brother alike practiced with their expansive range—her especially. She seemed to be everything magical in existence, almost as if to balance how Shana had come to embody everything physical. Edgar also proved a surprising fluency in magic despite being Protean, and could actually create plants rather than just control or influence them. It would do him no good in battle—which Virginia repeatedly mentioned—but he just felt happy to share his magic with Siobhan the way Rocky loved sharing his physical strength with Shana. It helped them understand these most important people in their lives.
By age ten, some of those unanswered questions started to answer themselves. Siobhan and Rocky were helping Octavia set the table for dinner when Siobhan chimed up, "I'm going to marry Edgar, and Rocky will marry Shana."
The statement came as no surprise to their mother. "Of course you will." She hid a smile as she put down a basket of biscuits. "Do they know that?"
Rocky shook his head. "Not yet." He cocked his head. "I don't think they've noticed," he decided. "They don't notice stuff like that. I mean, I know they love us like we love them, but maybe they just don't know what it means. Ginny said that there are two types of soul mates. Twins and lovers. Sherry and Lexie are twins for Siobhan and Shana, so that means Edgar and I are their other soul mate."
Octavia did her best to not laugh. When hormones started kicking in when the kids got closer to twenty-one, things would get only more entertaining. Especially if her two Dark ones still remained adorably oblivious. "I promise not to tell." She winked. "That'll be your job someday. Go fetch them for dinner."
After they had all sat down and started eating, Octavia finally brought up something she had been putting off. "Shana, the accelerated study program on Axium finally got back to me. They've accepted you as a full-time student."
Shana looked over quickly. "Really, Mom?"
"What program?" Siobhan asked.
Octavia sighed. "As you and Rocky know, Shana has been utterly miserable in school because she can't learn enough fast enough, and I haven't been able to find a suitable tutor for her to learn on her own. One of Alexandria's fathers brought Axium's program to my attention. It is specifically designed for children like Shana who just aren't suited for a normal school setting. She would be able to learn anything and everything she desires." She looked down. "However, it means she'll need to move to Axium for at least ten years to complete the program. She could be there even longer if she decides to attend their university."
"B-but!" Tears welled in Siobhan's eyes. "That's so long!"
"I know, but it may be for the best for Shana. It's her decision." She looked at her other daughter. "You have the final call on this, love."
Shana was still thinking about it a week later, and her family did not help much. Edgar badly did not want his sister to leave, but he kept his mouth shut and didn't give an opinion either way. On the other hand, Rocky and Siobhan could not stop themselves from pleading and begging Shana not to leave. They knew she felt terrible in school, yet neither could really bear the idea of not having her always there by their side.
Shana said nothing of her internal turmoil, but Alexandria knew her twin all too well. She finally managed to pry the entire thing out of Shana, and immediately cornered the two Delphinium Cultivators at school the following day. "Stop," she told them both very firmly. "You're making Shana sad."
Fresh tears ran down Siobhan's cheeks, and matching ones filled Rocky's eyes. "But she needs us," Rocky said fiercely. "She'll be alone over there! She's always so alone. Lexie, come on. You don't want her to go, right?"
Alexandria shook her head. "I'll go with her. So will Desiree and Kellie. Clara said she would make sure. She can come home to visit, you know, and maybe you can go out there. Axium is only on the next landmass. Just a few days away by ship. It'll be okay." She took each of their hands and squeezed gently. "Let her go," she urged. "She needs this. Things need to happen, okay?"
It was the hardest thing that either sibling had ever done, but they knew Alexandria to be right. Swallowing their own sadness, they fought back tears and instead began to encourage Shana to go. She was startled initially, and then deeply grateful. All of her guilt evaporated entirely, enough that she began to be excited at the coming adventure. She tried to keep it hidden, but Rocky spied it without any effort and found he could no longer be sad when she looked and felt so happy.
Almost a month later, Octavia took all four kids to the southern dock beyond Lux to put Shana on the ship that would sail to Axium. Most of her luggage had already been shipped, so she only brought a bag with the things she needed for the next week. She felt no fear at all for doing the voyage alone. She had insisted on it because she knew she needed to be used to doing things for herself.
At the port entrance, Octavia hugged her fiercely and then slowly let go. Even only just over ten years old, already Shana had gotten taller than her adopted mother. "You have fun, alright?" Octavia told her softly. "And call us a lot. Every summer, you can either come home to visit, or Edgar will come see you."
Shana nodded and smiled. "Okay." She then turned and hugged Siobhan fiercely. "No crying!" she scolded. "I'm not going away forever." She rubbed at the tears in Siobhan's eyes and then hugged Edgar. For a moment, she almost could not let go. Only knowing that she would see him again soon and that they could call each other any time finally made her release him. She turned toward Rocky and found him offering a hand. She frowned.
He shook his head. "I want to walk you to the dock. We can say goodbye there."
"Oh." She paused and then took his hand. Refusing to let herself look back, she walked beside him through the busy port. "Why?" she asked him softly. "I won't change my mind now. I know you're still upset. I can feel it."
"I know. I'm not going to ask you to stay." He stopped walking and smiled as a hint of pink touched his cheeks. "I want to ask you to keep me in your heart. I don't have to be first, but I want to be someone the most special to you, like you are to me. Someday, I want to be your boyfriend. I think . . . we're soul mates. I really love you, Shana. Not like I do Siobhan, but as much as I do."
She could only stare at him for a few moments. She had missed that one entirely, though hindsight made her feel a bit silly that she had not at all noticed his feelings. It took barely a minute to evaluate her own feelings. "You are my most special person," she admitted softly. "I love you as much as I love Edgar or Alexandria, just differently. I think . . . you're right. We're soul mates." She smiled, and her pink eyes glowed like the protea blossoms growing down the walls. "I want to be your girlfriend someday, too. So . . ." She rose up the small distance in their heights and kissed his cheek. "Someday, when I come home for good, we'll be each other's mate."
He touched his cheek as he watched her walk away and kept back the tears determined to well up. He managed only until he got back to where the other three waited, and then he let his mother hold him as the tears came free. "I smiled when I said goodbye," he whispered against her neck.
"Then you'll smile when you say hello again," she promised. She gathered Siobhan and Edgar close as well. "Let's go home."
Siobhan discovered very quickly that she did not like having her room back to herself after so long, so both Rocky and Edgar took turns spending the night with her for the first month until she settled. Even then, they all still spent more time together, and would gather each time Shana called.
Any worry about Shana being alone in Axium alleviated itself quickly as well. Clara, rather guiltlessly, pulled strings both literal and magical and arranged for one of Alexandria's fathers to get a transfer to Axium that moved the entire family. Shana had been all but adopted by her twin soul's parents, so they immediately offered to house her rather than her live in the school's dorms. In very short order thereafter, both Desiree and Kellie's families also conveniently made a move to Axium that allowed the other two Dark Defenders to be near to their queen. Virginia instead promised to protect Edgar as needed, and she and Alexandria exchanged contact information to make sure they were both kept up-to-date.
Clara would be the first to say time could not be stopped, and it continued to pass through peaceful years. Edgar visited Shana every summer, yet she never managed to come home for her own visit—and neither Siobhan nor Rocky could get to see her. Something always happened. By the time twentieth birthdays approached, Rocky had decided it must surely be the whim of Destiny, so he continued to practice patience no matter how difficult. Reuniting would be only sweeter after so many years. At least he could still talk to her when she called.
At age twenty, teenagers began the transition into adulthood and could begin gaining independence. One of the first things they could do was move out of their parents' home, though it did have to be to someplace close by. Octavia helped by offering her opinion on the different apartments they perused, but she trusted their judgment. Honestly, all of them had been acting much like adults since their mid-teens anyway.
Once Siobhan had turned twenty and the two males twenty-one, they got more serious about their planning. Rocky and Siobhan expected to get an apartment with Edgar, but they found themselves surprised when he responded to the idea with an empathic negative. "Huh." Rocky crossed his arms on the kitchen table and studied his future brother-in-law. "What gives with that? You tired of us finally?"
Edgar grinned, taking it as it was meant. "Well, you do get on my nerves sometimes, but mostly because I feel as if I'm always chasing you with a dustpan to sweep up your broken hearts."
"We're not that bad!" Siobhan said in exasperation. She bonked him lightly in the head with a rolled up periodical newspaper.
"I beg to differ, and Gin would be the first to agree!" He hooked an arm over the back of his chair. "Actually . . . I just really want my own place."
Siobhan studied his face, and her eyes softened. "Because of Shana," she murmured. "You want to save a place just for you two for when she finally comes home. This summer, right?"
He shook his head. "Actually, no. She decided to start her university classes out there for now. She wants to do the first two-thirds of her university degree there and then do the last out here. So . . . she won't be home until maybe April of 5104."
It was currently February of 5100. "Four years!" Rocky sulked a bit. "Destiny better make it worth it," he muttered. "It's very obvious that some sort of celestial shenanigans are happening. What is it she wants from us?"
"Not you," Siobhan corrected. "Me. And Shana. Destiny expects something from us." She scowled. "Which our Defenders definitely know and aren't telling! They all know a lot they haven't told us. Comes with the territory, I guess. They're so determined to be our bodyguards and protect us from everything that they forget sometimes to be our friends first!" She scowled. "I tried yelling at Ginny over that. Didn't go over well."
Rocky winced. "Probably about as well as the time I tried yelling at her over it." In a grumble, he added, "Not fair to make a Lead Defender be a Glass element."
Siobhan had to grin. "At least she can keep us in line."
They finally decided on two apartment buildings not far from one another. Edgar, still receiving monthly stipends from his parents' trust, got a larger one with two master suites. Siobhan and Rocky got one a bit smaller, but still with enough space for them both. They knew Octavia would support them as needed, and they refused to take more than necessary. Siobhan had gotten a scholarship for her living expenses to attend the university to study medicine, and Rocky had started working at a ranch outside Lux. He made more than enough to cover his own expenses, though he still waffled a bit on exactly what to pursue in his studies. He would start with basics for now.
Later that year, both Rocky and Edgar turned twenty-one and caught up with the other Cultivators. The very next year, Siobhan (and Shana) also turned twenty-one. A lot could happen at or after hitting that age, especially where hormones were concerned. Most people started to get the full presence of them, though others skipped them entirely, and others as yet only found them after getting to know someone. The whole force and fury wouldn't be in swing until after finishing maturity by twenty-five.
Siobhan got a little bit of a shock a few months after her birthday by looking at Edgar one day and suddenly feeling a wave of such powerful desire that she almost pounced on him right then and there. She refrained, if only because they happened to be in public. If that was the starting shot, she almost worried about how much stronger it could get in four years. How did something that already consumed her heart and soul as much as her body possibly get stronger? Well, Sherry had warned her that if she and Edgar really were lover soul mates, it would happen.
To her frustration and amusement, however, Edgar seemed to be still oblivious. Not unusual for him, really, and a vague feeling of the distant past told her that something very like this may have happened already. She considered her options for getting him to look at her as a nearly-grown woman rather than just a dear friend and then decided the blunt tactic really had to be the best choice. You could not be subtle with Proteans. Ever. She didn't envy her brother's future at all.
Still, she knew how to bide her time. After catching dinner together, she asked Edgar, "Can I come back with you to your apartment? I'm not feeling like leaving you right now."
He snuggled her closer. "Sure." He all too often felt starved for her presence as well, so did not object any time she wanted to visit. It had just been getting more frustrating lately because each time she looked at him with her soft gold eyes, he felt an unmistakable urge to kiss her. Damned if he would scare this most important person to him!
He let them into the apartment and then headed for the kitchen. "Bubbly water?" he called.
"That'd be nice." She wandered over to the window to watch the setting sun. She heard him return and turned around to watch him sit down on the couch. The sunset seemed to caress his hair and skin, drawing out the Dark inside him with such force that she felt an almost magnetic pull. He did not use Dark as an element—supposedly only Shana could—but that made him no less a child of Protea and therefore deeply, powerfully, of the darkness. From dawn until sunset, Proteans exuded raw sunlight, and from sunset to dawn, they poured out pure darkness.
He glanced over to ask what she was thinking, and he stopped breathing. She glowed. Radiantly, beautifully, as if the Light inside her soul could not be contained. She illuminated everything around her, and her light spilled into his own soul with an almost seductive lure. She was the Apex of Light, everything magical in existence, and a glorious blend of Light and Illusion elements. "Siobhan?"
She calmly walked across the room, and she stripped off her sweater as she went. Before he could blink, she slid onto his lap facing him. "Hi," she said huskily. She trapped him there with her hands on the couch beside his head. "You know what Juli told me? A Cultivator's Caretaker considers it their sworn duty to seduce their Cultivator at the earliest opportunity. Since we're each other's Caretaker, I hope you don't mind that I decided to take care of that duty."
His mouth went dry. Of course he had seen her unclothed before, but suddenly it felt so very different. She looked soft, warm, and utterly perfect. Petite yet plump, and he ached to feel her under his hands. "What do you mean by Caretakers?" he managed to ask.
"Oh you." She pressed her forehead against his, unable to stop a smile despite the knots of frustration. "Edgar, really. Haven't you noticed we're soul mates?"
He opened his mouth and then closed it. A sheepish smile began to cross his face. "Uhm."
She nipped at his lower lip. He really did have a terribly kissable mouth. "Are we feeling silly for not noticing?" She cupped his beloved face in one hand. "You are of the Dark, my prince. I knew when we were ten that we would end up here."
"Half naked on my couch?"
"Okay, maybe not that specific, but I knew we were soul mates. We had to be." A beautiful glow moved over her skin, and her two Flower Marks appeared. Her breath hitched as he took that for an invitation and