Shana woke on a near scream and muffled the sound by pressing her hand hard against her mouth. The walls were just thin enough in her apartment that she could wake her roommates up. She turned over and buried her face in her pillow as she struggled to fight the nausea and pain gripping her internal organs. She never remembered her nightmares clearly, but she always remembered the way they made her feel.
She finally shoved her covers back and walked across the room to her door. She eased it open and looked out. It was silent and dark, and she headed down the hall to the bathing room quickly. Once she was in the small room, she shut the door and turned the light on.
Her own reflection greeted her, and she winced at the sight of the pallor to her normally golden brown skin. She ran water in the sink and splashed it onto her face. "I’m stronger than nightmares," she muttered softly to herself. "I won’t be defeated by them."
Oddly enough, the nausea faded away with her words and she felt something in her heart relax. She took a long breath and dried her hands and face. Something loomed in her future. Something terrible. She had always known that, had always known the nightmares tied to it.
She just didn't know what, or why.
(Lux, two months later)
April had arrived in Lux, and the naturally warm climate of Protea had begun to shift toward the familiar surge of spring life. Color saturated everything. Siobhan had expected to see such a thing, but things suddenly looked . . . more intense. She noticed it for sure as she headed to her first class of the day; Rocky had none other than a gym period much later, so she was on her own for once.
Nature power had gone into overdrive. From just the day before to right then, everything had exploded into bloom as if someone had given the city a boost. Her eyes narrowed ever so slightly as she thought about timing and the whys of how such a thing may have happened. She bided her time until after class and then went toward where she knew Edgar had just finished a Business Operations class. She had always teased him over such a blasé degree to pursue, but she did suspect he had ulterior motives of some sort. He certainly did seem passionate about it. She let it be for now; she would nag later if she sensed something important happening that she did not know about.
As soon as Edgar walked out of his class, he winced at seeing his lover glaring at him. "Siobhan."
"Something you want to tell me?" she asked politely. "Because, wow, how interesting, but I got asked by maybe half a dozen people on my way over if the new student is related to you because she looks enough like you to be your taller twin! And, hmm, isn't the Nature lovely this time of year, Edgar?"
He coughed as much to hide a laugh as in sheepishness. He tucked her under his arm and moved her away from the door so they would be less likely to be overheard. "Alright, busted. Yes, Shana is already home. She started her first classes today. I wanted to surprise you two and Mom, and bring her home tonight for dinner."
She scowled. "Darn it, Edgar! That's not good enough and you know it! I want to see my sister, and I sure want to see her and Rocky finally be together! I want my brother as wrapped around her finger as I am around yours!" She crossed her arms and thought with such force that Edgar looked at her a bit warily. "Okay," she said. "What's her schedule?"
Rightfully amused and wary alike—he never trusted either Toulume when they wanted something—he said, "One photography class right now followed by an open gym workout for physical education."
She pursed her lips. "Rocky has the open gym after that." She nodded. "Okay. That's what we do." She pulled out her phone and said, "Rocky Toulume." When her brother answered, she said cheerfully, "Hi! I just got told that the gym is going to get closed during your normal time, so you should probably come take this open gym period instead. I mean, you don't want to skip it. You get cranky if that happens."
Rocky audibly paused. "Uh, okay. Thank you. Guess I'll head over?"
"Okay, have fun!" She closed and stuck the phone back into her pocket with a satisfied sort of flourish. To Edgar, she said, "I give them an hour before I march in, and damn it all, they had better look suitably together as soul mates!"
Edgar fought back a laugh. "Have I mentioned how glad I am you and your brother are on the side of good?"
She grinned. "Repeatedly."
Rocky rightfully knew he was being set up, though he genuinely had no clue just why or for what. He simply grabbed his gym bag and left the apartment. It took less than half the distance to the university for him to notice the significant change to the city. His heart began to beat much harder as longing welled hotly.
The deeper he moved through campus toward the gyms, the less he could breathe for painful hope. His fingers trembled as he reached for the knob of the door, but then froze as his Sight stirred. The powerful premonition rose up and briefly blinded him as it whispered through his soul. His life was about to change forever. To enter that door would be to enter past the point of no return. If he was smart, if he did not want his life to change, he should walk away. Just walk away and not open the door.
As if he could ever walk away! He opened the door swiftly, and he felt his entire existence tilt on its axis as he stared at the tall warrior goddess dressed with casual grace in workout wear. Nothing had changed. She still looked every bit his sister's perfect opposite: lean and fit with a powerful physique offset by a surprisingly defined bust and hips. He wistfully studied her long legs. Toned and tempting alike. And, as ever, she also looked very much exactly like a female version of Edgar, right down to the sassy curve of her lips and protea pink eyes.
Shana felt a sudden powerful Light sweeping across her soul, and her breath caught. Longing welled as she turned sharply, and there in the doorway she found the one she had missed the most. He looked exactly how Edgar had described, exactly as she had always imagined, and a potent blend of emotions, some she couldn't quite name, seemed to spill over inside her soul. Familiar emotions, somehow. Her soul mate. He had been right so long ago. Even though they were not yet twenty-five, she just knew. "Rocky."
He shut the door behind him and walked closer. "I missed you," he said softly. He slowly reached out to cup her cheek, and her skin felt familiar to his fingers. He could nearly taste her kiss on his lips. His soul mate. He had always known she would be. An ache swelled for the memories he did not have of the past. He needed to remember this most important person. Needed to know what she needed from him as a Caretaker.
"I think I'm going to possibly lose my mind if you don't kiss me," she whispered as he drew her closer. "Get on with it, damn it."
He dragged her in and claimed the kiss he had craved for years. For a lifetime. Perhaps for millennia. She tasted like wonderful dark chocolate and felt impossibly perfect in his arms. The rising tide of desire seemed too damn forceful and untamed to possibly get stronger in less than two years, and he very nearly tumbled her right down onto the padded floor.
She would not have argued or stopped him, frankly. In fact, when they finally parted a bit, she could only manage to whisper, "Thank goodness we're alone in here. If we'd met at the port, we might have embarrassed some folks, including our siblings. And as much as it feels damn tempting to just say 'who has an empty apartment we can borrow', we are still on the university's time."
He grinned. "Still not a shy bone in your body."
"Please. Shyness just makes things take longer." She caught his shirt and tugged him back down for another quick kiss. "I don't mind when you're right," she told him softly. "And you were right, Rocky. We have to be soul mates. There's no other reason for me to feel the way I do. You're . . . my everything."
Rocky slowly and reluctantly released her and then stepped back to look at her. "You are unfairly gorgeous," he finally told her. "Edgar never told me much, just that you two still looked like twins. Damn him."
She grinned a bit wickedly. "He told me all about you, so I didn't feel that surprised to see you—other than the fact that, wow, I didn't know I would have such a thing for softness and muscle." She swung away with a grace nearly elemental, her entire body moving in precise control as if she could command every muscle she owned. "I look forward to being much closer, to be sure. Tell me, do you still strip off most everything as soon as you get home?"
"I temper that some living with my sister, but for you, I could make an exception." He moved slowly to flank her on the floor in a deliberately challenging gesture. Sun from the skylights seemed to melt across her golden brown skin. "You always look as if the sun has kissed your skin. I wonder what other Light doing the same might do to you."
She watched him from under her lashes. "You'll find out soon enough. Are you actually challenging me, Your Highness? You would dare try that with someone to be the Apex of Dark? Lexie says I embody everything physical in the universe. That's pretty ballsy of you. Aren't you Delphinium types supposed to be magical?"
He planted his feet and slowly lifted his hands. A nearly sensual smile tugged at his lips. "I'm magical enough, but I fought to make myself into your perfect Caretaker. I would think the Apex of Dark might not accept a suitor she can run roughshod over in battle. We used to spar plenty as children, and I could push you as no one else did. You'll win here, of course, but you'll need to work for it—and you love that."
A thrill curled through her body that wasn't entirely just lust. His strength truly appealed to her more than his handsome face and strong form, and appealed all the way to her soul. No, he could not beat her. No one could. She accepted that as much as she had accepted everything else in her life. But the idea that he could push her, make her stretch herself, made her deeply happy.
She lifted her hands in a mimicry of his pose. "No rules," she told him. A smile as sensual as his own filled her face and made her radiantly beautiful. "Give me everything you have."
"Maybe later. We're on university time." He shot toward her on a shout, willing to take the first strike and see how she responded.
The fight turned violent and furious in short order as kicks, blocks, punches, and more were fired off and countered faster than most eyes could track. He threw his full weight against her, fought fiercely and powerfully to drive her higher, and she simply adjusted and kept on pushing back. They traded back and forth on being the aggressor, and when he managed to get her to the ground, she fought free and flipped him over so that strikes were replaced by grappling. Time seemed to lose meaning until, finally, she got him pinned and held him there in a way he could not break free.
They both breathed heavily, looked as sweaty and disheveled as they felt. He smacked a hand on the ground in a gesture of yielding, and she shot at him a bit breathlessly, "Is that for real, or are you still ready to fight?"
"I'm dead, Your Majesty," he told her tiredly, but still dryly. He knew full well she could go another few rounds, could dig deep for strength and stamina he could never match, and he simply had nothing left to give. "You win." He found the strength to reach up and tangle his fingers in her messy black hair. It hung to past her hips, as it had for years. Yet it never got in her way. He had always thought it might be a different sort of magic. "Happy?"
She released her grip so he could get free if he wanted, but he didn't bother to move and let her continue to pin him to the floor. Not that she minded the position herself. He made a positively delightful place to rest. "Very." She lowered her forehead to his and smiled. "We once said we'd be each other's girl or boyfriend, but, is it just me or . . . does it feel like maybe we skipped that somehow?"
"You mean it feels as much to you as it does to me that we're already married, which is really sort of illegal for almost two years?" He watched her hair slide through his fingers and then reached up to push more out of her face. "So maybe we skip to being engaged and get married as soon as we can to put things on a proper keel."
"I could be convinced." She couldn't resist stealing a quick and hungry kiss. "I don't have a bed at home yet."
Hungry heat flushed his body at the obvious invitation. "I do. Is that an offer to share it?"
She started to answer, and the doors to the gym swung open. They both turned their heads and found their siblings standing in the doorway. Neither looked at all surprised by the scene, and after a moment, Edgar told Siobhan. "Okay, fine. You win. More than an hour would mean we wouldn't see them again for a day or two."
Shana had to laugh at that. "Damn it, Siobhan! Sadist." She rolled lithely free of Rocky and gained her feet before offering a hand to help him up as well. "You set us up, didn't you? Well see if I argue with that!" She walked forward quickly with her hands held out.
Siobhan ran forward to meet her, and their hands meshed together like two magnets connecting. Their Light and Dark cores came into contact anew and, for the first time in their life, sparks literally flew between their hands. They both pulled their hands apart in surprise and stared at one another. Then, laughing, they clasped hands again and let the sparks flare as they wanted until their cores had evaluated the other and come to an accord. The sparks faded, and Siobhan laced their fingers tighter. "Maybe it's because we're matured fully."
Shana thought about it. "You're probably right. You mean we all feel old somehow?"
"And how!" Siobhan released her hands only to hug her tight around the waist. "I missed you," she whispered. "So much! It was never the same without you around. And I know I should completely let go and back off and let you and Rocky be together, but I just can't let go right now, okay?"
Shana held onto her sister just as tightly and smiled. "Hey, Rocky and I have plenty of time. We can share. Besides, I should probably get furniture for my room before I bring him home to it, right? I came here from Axium without much since I wanted to start anew."
Siobhan had to giggle at that. "Based on recent evidence, the floor seemed good enough for you two."
"Yeah but I'm not coming to you to ask you to heal rug burns," Rocky retorted dryly. "Bad enough I had to heal some for you once."
"Well that's awkward." Shana eyed him. "You can heal? Since when?"
"I'll tell you later," Edgar promised her dryly. "When I tell you also what's been going on around here. As you said, there's time enough for everything. Let's go get some dinner and then take you home to see Mom. I called her while we were waiting for you and Rocky and I told her you're home. Be glad you two are holding off. She would have seriously marched into the room and broken things up. She missed you, too."
By the time they had finished dinner and were enjoying dessert, it almost felt a bit as if Shana had never actually left home at all. Nothing important had changed. "What made you decide to do the split university thing?" Siobhan asked her as they shared a sundae at the diner. Their brothers were dueling with spoons over their own, and the women let them be. "Especially at this time. University switching in the middle of a quarter is odd enough."
"It normally is, but I'm on a different scheduling program because of my advanced placement, so what is halfway to you is actually starting for me. And while Axium's university had perfect introductory and intermediary classes, Lux has the better advanced ones I want to take in order to graduate with my best possible skills. I'm sort of getting two degrees," she admitted. "Photography and Business Operations alike."
Siobhan studied her, thought again about Edgar, but said nothing. She could bide her time until she felt it the right moment to push for answers. She didn't expect them to be outright forthcoming, of course. Not when they were so ridiculously of the Dark. They tried to do everything by themselves! "Okay, well that does make sense! Were you living with Alexandria the entire time over there?"
"I was, though once I turned twenty, her and I, and Kellie and Desiree all got an apartment together. Which means, of course, that now I miss them terribly." She sighed. "However, Lexie promised me that she and the others would transfer, too, so I should see them very soon and we can all be together as a team again. It's so hard, only being able to have just a few of the people who complete you. I missed the Light Defenders too."
"I missed the Dark ones," Siobhan admitted softly. "And so did Edgar and Rocky. It was hard here, too." She shook it off. "It's in the past! What're you up to this weekend? And tell me about being a photographer! You use a camera, right? It kind of doesn't surprise me, really. You always showed interest in it."
"What can I say? I got lucky in knowing what I wanted. I take pretty photos of people mostly, but sometimes I play with landscape images. I'm mostly keen on fashion and theatrical sorts of photography. It's fun working with actors and models. As for this weekend, I really need to go shopping. In addition to the aforementioned furniture, I sort of need clothes and the like. I literally donated everything except some bare essentials before coming home. So I'll be spending the weekend shopping."
"I'll help!" Siobhan promised. She grinned. "And I'll call up the others! We'll make it a big event and a sort of welcome-home type thing."
Shana's eyes warmed. "Absolutely, I would love to have all of you help me tackle some shopping needs. You may kidnap me at your will this weekend." She grimaced. "Just as long as someone else does the driving."
Siobhan immediately covered her hand soothingly. "Just call me or Rocky," she promised gently. "That's our deal with Edgar, too. You don't have to face something you're afraid of alone, okay? If you can't use an electric bike, then you've got us to take you in our carriage."
Shana smiled. "Thanks, Siobhan."
"S'what sisters are for! And I definitely think we're almost sisters twice or three times at this point."
"Is that good or bad?"
Shana laughed. "Fair enough, I guess."
With dessert done, they paid for their meal and then headed for the house sitting only blocks away from the Toulume apartment. It looked the same as Shana remembered, and she felt nostalgia and loneliness well. She had only gotten to see Octavia once or twice over the last thirteen years, though she had called her adopted mother frequently enough. Just hearing her voice could make Shana feel better.
The door opened, and Shana saw Octavia in the doorway. She looked almost the same, too, just now with some gray beginning to stripe her white hair. Shana stopped dead in her tracks, which made the other three stop as well. Rocky took one look at her face and knew she had smacked into that innate Dark difficulty with emotion. He caught her hand in his and pulled her down the pathway to the steps where Octavia waited. "Look what I found!" he said cheerfully. "And she says I can keep her."
Standing on the second step, Octavia actually reached eye level with her youngest. She could not fight back tears as she reached out to hug Shana tightly and rock her gently. "Welcome home, baby. Come inside and tell me everything. Anything new I don't know."
Shana smiled and held onto Octavia's hand as they entered the house. "I'm apparently going to marry Rocky. Is that new?"
"Ha! No, not really. You'll need to try harder. He told me that intent when he was ten. And, to be fair, I just sort of had this feeling all along, really." Octavia poured out the tea she had already been brewing, and she added a single sugar to Shana's for she remembered still everything about what her four kids did and did not like. "Try again."
"Hmm. I might be on call to get a newly famous actor naked on photographic print?"
"Okay, that is new. Do tell."
Shana bunked that night in her old shared room with Siobhan, and her sister stayed as well. The men shared their old room. That just, somehow, made things feel more as if they had become normal anew. None of them had classes on the following day so simply spent the time together as much as they could. Rocky had to leave early, though, for work, and he lingered over kissing Shana goodbye. "Maybe some time soon," he whispered, "after you get that new bed. I can help you test it."
"Maybe you can," she whispered back. "Get out of here." She shoved him out the door, but she was smiling.
The weekend arrived only a day later, and Shana braced her shoulders for the inevitable crowds in the shopping center. She had told Edgar not to bother getting anything before her arrival because she wanted the fun of picking out her own. He hadn't minded, nor had he minded sharing his bed for a night or two. Unlike someone else he often shared a bed with, she didn't kick him in the middle of the night.
Bright and early on Saturday, Shana heard the doorbell and went to answer. She found a familiar face on the other side, though she had not seen the other woman in over a decade—in this life. She brightened. "Juliet!"
"Shana!" Juliet happily hugged the taller female and felt a fresh spurt of amusement. At least protecting Shana would be a familiar exercise; she had grown used to tackling down those bigger than her in order to keep them safe! "Welcome home, hon. Siobhan said you needed to get some shopping done! My cousin owns a furniture shop. I can wrangle you a great deal on some pieces. I'll even drive you there."
"Deal!" Shana grabbed her shoes and jacket and contently followed along behind Juliet. "It really does feel good to be home," she decided. "Glad I missed out on that plague, though. That would have been no fun, even if I don't seem to ever get sick."
"No kidding," Juliet murmured.
They tackled the furniture store, and Shana fell in love with a hand-carved bed and dresser set. Juliet's cousin cheerfully offered a discount on a matching nightstand as well, and Shana couldn't turn it down. After arranging for delivery that afternoon, she followed Juliet back outside to her carriage. "I don't normally spend lots of money," she confessed. "I've always been a frugal sort, even though my parents' trust for me means I could live more than comfortably. It's just not my style to be extravagant. Weird, maybe, for a queen."
Juliet smiled at her as she navigated toward the cluster of shops that made up the main center of shopping for Lux. "Not necessarily. I seem to recall you being a bit on the less-than-extravagant side back then, too. You raised such a ruckus over handmaidens putting amber in your hair that your mother finally let you use crystals."
Shana snorted softly. "The more things change, as they say."
They met up with Sherry and Virginia at the shopping center, and Shana was just as happy to see them as she had been to see Juliet. Once Yvonne joined them, it felt even better. Having the four Light Defenders helped fill the gap inside her heart where she terribly missed her Dark Defender guardians. She had gotten used to missing Clara—the Statice Cultivator visited only once or twice a year—but the other three had been a semi-permanent presence in her life.
Siobhan also caught up with them in short order, and the six had incredible fun scouring the shops to find all of the things Shana might possibly need. Along the way, Sherry borrowed a shop's tape measure in order to jot down Shana's measurements for herself. "So I can make you things as well!" the seamstress said cheerfully. "I like designing things for the ones I love. We'll glamorize you so that Virginia has to paint you."
"Only if I get to do figure studies of everyone," Shana countered, sticking her tongue out a bit. "If I'm going to be everyone's dressmaker doll, you all have to play nice and let me make you look amazing too!"
"Naked again," Yvonne grumbled.
"Again?" Shana lifted a brow.
Virginia grinned wickedly. "She lost a bet."
It made Shana laugh. "Being with you all is almost like being with the other Cultivators. I miss them," she added softer. "I hope they come here soon. They promised they would."
Siobhan could barely imagine what it would be like to not see her four Defenders whenever she wanted. All over again, she marveled at the strength inside her sister. She slipped her hand into Shana's and held on in support. "You have us now, too," she promised. "You're not alone, okay?" She leaned her head against Shana's shoulder. "You and Edgar. You always think you have to handle your own burdens. But you have us. Lean on us."
"If I can," Shana promised. "It's hard for me, sorry."
"Well, you wouldn't be you if you weren't that sort of person," Sherry agreed with a smile. "And we love you anyway."
It proved a good thing that all of them had driven their own carriages. The quantity of bags Shana accumulated shortly hit rather impressive numbers. She had not just clothes, but many of the little things that she had never before indulged in obtaining. Copious books, knickknacks she wanted to display, and even her own PCM—which she had always wanted but had never been able to justify. Once she upgraded her current physical plate-system camera to the more modern electrical sort that used digital plates, she could use the machine to do all of her processing.
The loot was hauled back to her apartment, and champion flirting from Virginia got several other people in the apartment lobby to help bring everything upstairs. Shana shooed them all off after that; she wanted the fun of putting it all away to herself. In another humorous contrast, the Chivanti apartment often looked a bit impeccable while the Toulume one always appeared scattered. Order versus disorder. Perhaps another reason they worked well together.
She had just finished putting clothes away in her closet when she heard the door. She wandered out to see who had arrived, and she slowly lifted a brow as she saw deliverymen. All of her furniture had already arrived. "What did you order?" she asked Edgar as he signed off on papers.
"I didn't. I had nothing to do with this. Well, other than the fact that I might have blabbed to someone about you having the second master suite with the balcony."
Her brows shot up as the men carried in pieces of furniture she could not identify, and a small box that looked, weirdly, as if might have been wiggling. She did not need to ask to know who Edgar referenced. "What in the name of the gods did that man do?"
She had to wait patiently, however. She bided her time by putting away books on the shelves in the sitting room. As soon as the deliverymen left with cheerful farewells, she dashed down the hall toward her bedroom. The balcony doors stood wide open, and she stepped out slowly to discover a cozy swing had been installed. It looked perfect for curling up with a book—or a person.
The formerly wiggling box sat on the swing, and it wiggled more as she approached. A note had been pinned to the top. Out loud, she read, "You would never have asked for this, but I know you always wanted it. Invite me over to snuggle you both sometime." She blinked. "Both?" She dropped the note and tore open the box to discover an adorable black baby ferret sitting inside. It made a sweet little 'dook' noise and then scampered out to climb up her arm to her shoulder.
"Well, hello!" Enchanted, she scooped the fuzzy creature up and nuzzled his fur. "Aren't you sweet!" She had always wanted a pet, but Octavia's allergies and her own lack of feeling actually settled anywhere had prevented it. This one felt perfect. She sensed her brother and turned to look at him with a trembling smile. "Those two are more dangerous than ever. How do they always know what other people need?"
He began to grin. "I have no clue. And they're not any better where their eternal optimism and belief in the greater good of mankind is concerned. I've banged my head on a wall over both of them more than once." He wanted to tell her everything else that had been going on recently, but, at the same, he desperately did not. He wanted to keep her world as normal as he could until he had to tell her that there was a price to her birth. A price! How could any life carry such a thing? He could understand it was the result of an Apex having arcanery, but he did not like it.
"I'll keep that in mind," she decided. She put the ferret down and grinned as he scampered into the apartment to explore. "Sebastian," she decided. "That's his name. Or Bastian for short. It fits him." She sighed. "He read my mind. I swear he did."
Edgar knew who she meant, but he still asked, "Rocky?"
"Who else? Every time we see each other, we just . . . I have no words for how we click together. There is no one that I feel closer to. I never imagined having a lover soul mate could feel that way." She looked at her brother and smiled whimsically. "I just can't imagine my life without him and Lexie and you. You as much as them. All three of you . . . help complete me. I don't think I could handle losing you anymore than I could losing my two soul mates."
Her words did not surprise him. He had watched the same bond between Siobhan and Rocky literally devastate Rocky when Siobhan had died. Looking anew at how deeply Siobhan and Shana seemed bonded, much as Rocky and Edgar had, he thought he could safely assume that whatever bound the four siblings together truly was near identical to what bound soul mates. Reciprocity happened quite a bit between people who shared soul mates, and it clearly applied here as well. But the why? Well, that still remained unknown. They would just have to wait for those answers along with the rest.
Whether they wanted those answers could be left for debate, though.
©Stacy J. Garrett. Do not reprint or redistribute without permission.