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The Unseen Kingdoms - Bonus

Getting used to having a roommate wasn't the problem for Jean. Getting used to a hot man for a roommate wasn't the problem for Jean. The problem was that her new roommate was hot, male, available, and looked at her as if she was the only woman who existed in his entire universe.

It was vexing. Frustrating. It was also vastly puzzling. She knew quite well that she was nice enough looking by the accepted standards. She kept herself healthy, and she didn't have any glaring 'flaws' such as crooked teeth or skin conditions. She could even say that she was aware of her magic somehow making her beautiful beyond physicality thanks to her good deeds. She had just never really seen herself as attractive enough to make anyone, male or female, focus on her with such single-minded intensity.

A hand suddenly waved in front of her face. "Jean?" Byron asked. "You've been staring at the fish tank as if it holds the secrets of the universe. Don't you scry with a crystal ball?"

She blinked and snapped out of her reverie. A glance up told her he was right beside her, and his normal ranunculus scent had been enhanced by a light sheen of sweat on his skin from his normal morning run. "Back up," she told him, but sharper than she intended.

He just smiled and rubbed a towel over his head as he went down the hall. She could only groan and drop her head on the coffee table. She had never been explicitly good at hiding her feelings under any circumstance—she was what she was—so the one time she did want to hide her feelings, she just ended up waving a bigger flag.

He was wearing a shirt when he returned, but it wasn't fastened, and it blatantly showed the empty outline of his Ruler mark. She eyed him for several moments and then decided not to fight a battle she would never win. Instead, she got to her feet and went into the kitchen. "Tea?" she called. Level ground. She needed level ground.

"Sure." He leaned on the kitchen counter and openly admired her. He never tired of watching her. Her physical movements seemed unusual compared to most of the people in either of their lives. She moved without any hesitation, nigh instinctively, as if she always knew where to be and when. There was an underlying grace not born of physical training in any capacity, but something solely and inherently musical. There was nothing warriorlike about her, though he had been awed and humbled by her willingness to pick up a sword to protect Shana. He knew full well how Shana could make others feel they could do the impossible.

"Stop staring at me," she muttered suddenly. "It makes me nervous."

"Why?" he asked curiously. "Surely you've been stared at before."

She sighed. "Byron, I do hate to break this illusion you have that I'm some sort of lingerie model, but I am not that attractive. You are completely and utterly biased."

He grinned. "I might be completely and utterly biased but I am also in possession of perfectly decent eyesight. Even if I decided to look through your aura's radiance, I'd still see someone I'd be happy to stare at for the rest of my life." He came around the counter and caught her chin in his fingers to tilt her face up. Inside her eyes, he could almost see the swirl of her majik. "That aura of yours though. It makes you radiant."

Her pulse picked up, and she knew he had noticed because a little smile tugged his lips. "My majik." She fought to keep her voice even. "Witches just have that effect. Good witches, at least. Every deed done for good makes us more beautiful. I've likened it to what is inside starts coming out. A thanks of the Goddess for making our universe better." She shook her head a bit. "But that does not explain this."

"This?" He ran a thumb over her lips. She had the most impossibly perfect mouth ever created, and she had been created for him. Or had he been created for her? In nearly all cases, a Caretaker was made for a Cultivator, but theirs felt a complicated, and important, bond.

"Us. This attraction between us." Her lashes lowered as his head bent and his lips very lightly touched hers. "Why I can't seem to get you out of my mind or blood. I'm not normally like this, Byron. I'm not some sort of . . . sex kitten."

His lips curved. "Pity."

She started laughing despite herself. That little spark of humor, of life, was even more appealing to her than his looks. He always knew what to say to her. He understood her. The thoughts slipped unbidden through her mind. She would never scare him, could trust him to stay by her side. She could shelter him, heal his wounds. How seamlessly had they already meshed their lives? He had moved in, and it was as if he had always been there. Would always be there eternally.

Her fingers suddenly clutched his shirt, and he could see a flicker of terror in her auburn eyes. Rather than waste time with words when they may fall on deaf ears, he simply tugged her onto her toes and took her mouth with his. If he couldn't taste her, feel her, sense the burn of her majik . . . he would have nothing.

If it was madness, it was a madness she could not fight. A low sound of hunger echoed from her powerful voice as she slid an arm up around his neck to keep him close. Her fingers buried in his hair. Her other hand reached out to curl around the sparkling Flower Mark on his upper left arm and let the rush of his magic sweep through her. His wonderful musician's hands skimmed over her back and waist as if he was playing a piano.

A little gasp caught in her throat as he lifted her off her feet and buried his nose in the opening of her low tank top. The tip of his tongue teased dangerously close to the pendant she wore. Her eyes went wide, and she opened her mouth to warn him, but there was no nasty shock. His lips brushed the pendant aside as if it was nothing more than a pretty piece of silver. Haeth had accepted him.

The doorbell rang.

He lifted his head quickly, and annoyance had replaced the hunger in his eyes. "Of all the timing. I was winning."

"You were not winning anything!" Her voice lacked bite if only because she knew he was right. She genuinely could not say if she was annoyed or relieved by the interruption. "Just a moment!" she called toward the door. "Byron, put me down."

He did so, but slowly. "Jean?" he asked softly.

Even without Telepathy, she knew what he was asking. She just sighed. "Yeah, this is relatively new territory for me too. Witches are able to feel desire without a soul mate, unlike Cultivators, but we're just as subject to the whims of hormones as mortals are. Some get them, some don't, some don't get them except under certain circumstances, whatever. We're still basically mortal, but we can have a soul mate. I'm in the circumstances category apparently."

He followed along as she headed for the door. "Circumstances being me, perchance?"

"No comment." She opened the door and immediately forgot the entire conversation as she found one of her young neighbors on the other side. "Jilly!" Her eyes raked over the other girl's face and anger began a churn in her stomach. "Come inside right now." She pulled the shorter female into the apartment and shut the door. "Byron," she ordered, "get some tea. The special blend."

Byron had already seen the large bruise and welling tears, and he hurried to the kitchen to make the tea. His stomach churned. It was one thing to see bruises on young Cultivators trained in combat, but another entirely to see it on a mortal civilian who, at best, was barely over thirteen years of age.

Jean gently eased Jilly onto the couch and sat beside her. The healer's fingers remained light and tender as she examined the bruise. "What set him off this time?" The natural briskness of her tone had disappeared and left a soft, almost hypnotic, tenderness.

"I don't know." Jilly drew in a deep breath and her voice caught. "I don't know anymore. I don't know why I'm here. I just couldn't stay there. I was going to kill him." Her hands clenched into fists in her lap. "I had my hand on a butcher knife and I . . . I couldn't do it. I just felt this urgency to see you. You'd help me. You protect me."

Jean inspected the bruise very carefully. The damage went all the way to the bone and radiated a pain that made Jilly's entire head throb. Jean was not by definition a physical healer, but she did possess a very low dose of the skill to aid with leftover effects from Spiritual Healing. She also had rights as a High Priestess that were sacred and unusual among her brethren. She reached out, asked, and received. A little boost to her Physical Healing skill came, and she was able to mend the broken tissue and vessels, removing all signs it had ever happened and easing the pain. "Always, always," she promised softly, "you can come to me. I will always protect you."

Byron crouched beside them and offered the teacup. Anger was a slow boil inside his stomach. Evil was not always purely what he fought as a Defender. Sometimes it simmered as terrible deeds inside mortals, too. Legal officers and investigators did their best to fight those wars so the Defenders did not have to, but sometimes it was tempting. "Drink this," he said gently, and his voice sounded as musical and soothing as Jean's. "What happened?"

Jilly looked at him with a little hint of panic and then at Jean. The priestess just shook her head as she continuing easing the pain and damage. "There is no one you can trust more. His existence is dedicated to . . . defending people."

The girl took an unsteady breath. "My dad. I . . . I'm always doing things wrong, so he punishes me."

Byron felt his magic surge inside his body, and he had a nearly inescapable urge to put on his Mask and go after the offender. A gentle touch of majik inside his soul eased him back, and he heard Jean's voice brush through his mind, Her entire life has been this way. She has been trained to believe she is always wrong so she will not tell anyone. From the moment we met, I have chipped at that inside her, trying to strengthen her soul.

He had known she had Telepathy, but he had not realized that meant more than just reading thoughts, and she could equally put her thoughts into another's mind. A bit of humor eased his stress more as he realized a life would be highly entertaining with her.

"Jillian," Jean said firmly, "I will repeat myself eternally if needed until you believe me that it is not you."

"Then why would he do it?" she asked fretfully. "It has to be me."

"Honey." Jean caught Jilly's face gently in her hands. "There is something wrong inside him. Something that dances against the edge of evil. If he had power, he would be a danger to the world in a way the Defender Cultivators could only handle. We are lucky that mortals of his kind do not have power, that we can fight back with our own hands." A premonition of the future moved across her eyes. "Someday we will not need to fight anymore, but until then, we have to be strong."

Jilly took a long breath. She could believe anything Jean told her. "You . . . you said you could give me a charm? Something that would keep him from hurting me."

"So long as you wear it, believe in it, it will protect you." Jean got to her feet and went over to a cabinet sitting where the sun and moon equally came in the window. Inside, a rainbow of candles could be seen along with bowls and dishes filled with gems and stones of all shapes and colors. A little jar of salt. Bits of cloth and small bags. Chains of silver and gold and findings for jewelry. Incense and essential oils. Dried herbs and ritual tools.

A haunting scent drifted out that Byron recognized. In truth, he could have recognized it anywhere. It was the scent of Jean's majik. It had permeated into the very wood of the cabinet. It smelled as beautiful as she looked.

Jean pulled out several small stones and a small black silk bag. She put the stones inside and then added some herbs from another jar. She tied the bag shut and attached it to a sturdy cord. After closing the cabinet, she brought the charm over to Ashley and sat down beside her again.

Byron may have had a sensitivity to majik by being a Cultivator, but he was not the only one who could see the bag glowing softly with silvery majik. Jilly gave a little gasp of delight. "It . . . it glows! It's so pretty." Jean put the cord over Jilly's head and the bag came down to rest on her heart, and she could literally feel it throbbing softly. "It feels a little like a hug," she whispered. "I feel . . . safe. And loved." She looked into Jean's eyes and saw the same silvery hue move across the auburn. "You really are a witch."

"The worst kept secret in the building." It was said with a smile. "Most everyone who lives here has come to me at some time for aid for something." Jean laughed. "Sometimes their wishes empower my charms too much."

A sudden smile crossed Jilly's face. "Aveed and Percy! I knew it! I knew you were why they had twins!"

"I just gave them a fertility elixir to help Aveed after the doctor told her that her chances were slim." Jean smiled. "The Goddess did the rest."

"Will your Goddess protect me?" Jilly touched the charm lightly.

"If She won't," Jean vowed softly, "then we will."

For the first time in his life, Byron finally understood what it meant when they said a Cultivator never chose an inferior mate. It came down to the simple fact that a Caretaker had every quality needed to complete their Cultivator. Jean was strong enough to argue with him, fiery enough to keep him on his toes, but she gave as generously of her heart and time to help others as he did. She fought the battles he couldn't, yet was willing to fight his battles at his side. If she could not go, she would be there to ease his wounds inside and out. His perfect other half.

A heavy fist pounded on the front door so hard that the wall shook. "Jillian!" a man bellowed. "You come out right now! I know you're in there!"

Jilly's entire body started shaking as well. "Easy." Byron pulled her into a hug. "He can't hurt you now, remember?"

Her hand closed tightly around the charm as if it were a lifeline. Jean calmly got to her feet and walked over to open the front door. "I didn't know we had laws against visiting a friend," she said easily. "Must have slipped that one past me in the last vote." Her voice hardened and cracked the air. "Put down your hand."

The audible compulsion robbed his arm of all strength and his hand dropped. "Get out of my way! Jillian!" he barked. "You come home this instant!"

"No." The word was so soft that it was almost impossible to be heard. She took a deep breath and pushed away from Byron to walk over and stand behind Jean. "No. I'm not going to let you hurt me again. I'm going to the legal district office and talking to the officers."

"Ha! You only get what you deserve, you ungrateful whelp!" His voice rose with every word, and doors began to open up and down the walkway. "Always whining, always complaining! 'I want to go to an accelerated study program.' What a laugh! Like I'd move us anywhere for you!"

"I'm going to live with Grandma and Grandpa instead," she vowed fiercely. "You can't stop me!" She held tighter to the charm and drew strength from its ready power. She could face this monster! "Jean took pictures of the times you hurt me. I have the proof to make the officers listen to me!"

"You stay out of our affairs!" The man swung one beefy fist toward Jean's face and she neither moved nor blinked. To his shock, his hand slammed into some sort of invisible barrier that made him feel as if he had punched solid concrete. Something broke in his hand and he yelped in pain.

Byron started to move, and Jean's voice came in his mind sharply, Do not interfere! You must trust me! He stopped even though it went against the grain. She had not used a compulsion on him, she had asked for his trust. He could do nothing less than give it even though he wanted to physically intercede to defend her.

"Abomination!" The word was spat at Jean. "Disgusting! Vile! You're an affront to existence!" His face began to turn slightly purple with his anger and his breath puffed harder. "You'll rot in the afterlife, witch!"

Her all-seeing eyes seemed to look right into him. "Not before you will."

He abruptly went gray and fell hard to his knees. He couldn't breathe as pain exploded inside his chest and numbed his arms. Then, abruptly, he fell face-first onto the cement. He didn't move again.

Voices rose up and down the hall. "Percy!" one yelled. "We need a paramedic!"

A man came rushing down the hall with a bag and dropped to his knees beside the fallen body. He checked intently, and silence hung in the area. Finally, he said, "I'm calling for a medical carriage, but the doctors won't say anything different. He's dead." He looked at Jilly. "Did he have a bad heart? That looked like an attack."

She slowly nodded. "The doctors told him that—that if he didn't watch his diet and start exercising that he'd end up in the hospital. He didn't like hearing it." She stared at the motionless form of her father. "He's dead?" Her voice quivered. "Really?"

"You come with me, Jillybean." An elderly woman walked forward and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. She looked at Jean over the girl's head and smiled with gratitude before looking back to Jilly. "We'll put you in a nice hot bath and feed you something. You can call your grandparents. The monster cannot hurt you anymore."

No one said anything as they disappeared into her apartment, and then Percy looked at Jean. "You did not do this." It was not a question.

She shook her head. "I do not harm others with majik. Period. But I would be lying to say I am not responsible in my own way for seeing his heart on the verge of rupture and doing nothing to stop his raging. If this was how Karma chose to issue his punishment, then nothing I did or did not do would stop it." Silvery majik moved across her eyes. "I will not tolerate the harm of innocents."

Everyone there knew she was gifted in ways beyond their comprehension. They knew she was the reason their building was never damaged, never vandalized. Why there were never robberies or dangers. That she would choose to not act in order to save Jilly was no surprise. "You weren't even involved," the Percy told her quietly, "and I will swear that to any who thinks to ask. Everyone go back inside. This is done."

Jean stepped back into her apartment and shut the door. This time, when she felt Byron's arms go around her, she turned and burrowed against his chest. "How do you handle it?" she asked against his shoulder. "Facing down evil every day."

"The same way you did." He tenderly smoothed his hand down her hair. "Holding your chin high and fighting because you know you have to. Because there's a reason you have the gifts you do. Because there are innocent people who can't fight for themselves." He brushed a kiss over the top of her head. "You're amazing. You should have been a Defender yourself."

"Yeah, okay, no thank you."

The next few days were quiet. Jilly's father's death was ruled a heart attack, and she moved to Valerian Heights to live with her grandparents. Any abuse she suffered was kept a secret among those who already knew; for her sake, it would stay a secret. Her nightmare had ended. She could start healing now. Jean received a letter from Jilly with a copy of her acceptance to the advanced study program, and it just seemed to make it all right.

A second letter arrived that same day, but this one made Jean groan as she tore the envelope open. "Dammit, Past Jean, why did you accept an invitation to this? You'll just be miserable. And feel old."

Byron looked up from where he had been fiddling with the keyboard that Jean owned. A song kept teasing his mind. In fact, he had lots of new songs. She was a great muse. He had even gotten her to sing one with him, but, well, the apartment residents had asked that not happen again indoors. Every plant in the building had gotten a little overzealous in growing. Oh well. "What's wrong?"

She sighed. "Vericity and its silly traditions. We like to have reunions for grading school classes after so many years. A 'where are they now' thing. Usually the five, ten, and fifteen year markers. My fifteen-year one is due, and this is reminding me it's tonight, and I had accepted an invitation."

Byron paused. Grading school on Protea was set up differently depending on advanced study or regular study, but effectively functioned the same in that a person attended two semesters a year from age five to age twenty, learning a wide variety of things to help set them up for life. Universities took over at that point for specialized schooling in specific fields. "Aren't you just thirty? That sounds five years off if I'm remembering right."

"You are remembering right. I was in advanced study classes, and with no reason to slow myself down, I just sort of blitzed through things enough that they kept skipping me over some semesters that were of no use. I entered university at sixteen after gradutating grading school at fifteen." Her brows came together. "I hated grading school. I never fit in. I was advanced even for the advanced placement, was much younger than classmates toward the end, and I was a witch. I was also unhealthily overweight," she added dryly.

"Damn. So what changed that at least?"

"Got into college, shucked the emotional baggage of previous school, and realized I was pissed I had been made to hate myself. I decided that the best way to spite them was to get healthy and love myself. So Liz helped me figure out how to make food my friend, and my brother made me work out with him. Took me until twenty, but I got there." She grinned. "Now I look in a mirror and mentally make rude gestures at my old classmates. Does wonders for my mental health."

"Well that explains why you're worse than me for getting in a daily workout. I was wondering if there was a motive beyond just liking being active." He grinned. "Is that why you called Liz's chocolate cake your mortal enemy?"

"She forces me to cheat. Forces me, damn it. You know how many squats you have to do to get rid of a slice of her cake?"

"Take a ten minute jog with me instead."

"Find me a bra that will hold my boobs in place without risk of bruising or a black eye, and I will."

That made him laugh. "I'll call Sherry and get it custom made. But for the record, bet you I would still have been just as enthralled by you back then as now."

She arched a brow slowly. "Kid, you would have been just starting grading school when I was graduating."

"It would have been a crush," he said woefully. "I'd have followed along behind you everywhere, worshipping you with my eyes because you were the amazing older woman who had entranced my tender young heart. Then, when I was the right age, I'd have thrown myself at your feet in desperate longing, willing to be a slave to your every desire."

She burst out laughing. "Oh please!"

"It's true." He got to his feet and walked over to her. He firmly pulled her into his arms so that he could feel every delicious curve of her body. "I could be your slave now," he offered hopefully. He bent his head to softly nibble on her ear. His hands skimmed slowly over her body. "As the person who loves this body, I have to say I admire your hard work."

His lips skimmed down her neck, and her knees went weak. "I'm going to hit you," she warned breathlessly.

"It's a losing battle." His voice roughened without his control. "You know it, Jean. You know you're going to have to give in. It's more than our bodies. It's something more. Something deeper." He buried his hands in her hair and tilted her head back. "I feel it inside you. The majik straining and reaching. Our powers want to merge as badly as our bodies do. Our souls have to touch. The longer you fight, the worse it will be."

"You're going to leave." The words were nearly torn from her. "You don't belong here, Byron," she said shakily. "You belong to another world. This is my home. You would leave me and it would destroy me. I don't want to be in love with you!"

Too late, a little voice whispered in her mind, and she didn't know if it was his, hers, Haeth's, or the voice of Destiny herself.

He slowly released her. He couldn't lie and say he could stay forever. It was a promise he couldn't yet keep, but he would find a way. Once the danger ended, he would go home solely to talk to his sister and ask Ranunculus if there would be further need for him. When he was sure there was not, he would return to his second home and the witch that completed him. "It wouldn't be easy for me either, Jean. I love you."

"You have no taste in women."

"Excuse you, but I have fabulous taste in everything. The periodicals say so."

"Put the ego down, Rancul." The banter had completely lightened her mood, though. She sighed gustily. "Tell me it would be a waste of money to blow off the reunion."

"It would be a waste of money." He tilted her chin up and kissed her hard. "Just think of it as a chance to wear something sexy and torment me while thumbing your nose at those who bullied you back in school."

Of course, he would just have to appeal to her morbid sense of humor. Before he could kiss her again and thoroughly ruin her ability to think, she got free of his grip. "Alright, fine. If we're going, we have to start getting ready now."

"They sent you a reminder a few hours before the event instead of a day or two?"

"Listen, the mail in this city is as screwy as our language, okay?" She headed down the hall to her room. She studied her closet and then defiantly picked out her sexiest dress: a snug sheath of stark black that clung to every curve. It was her secret reward for having the body to wear it. She added a little jewelry, put up her hair, and decided to wing it. "Byron?" she called down the hall. She had moved things out of her sacred space to give him a real bedroom to stay in. "I probably should have asked sooner, but, do you have more formal clothes?"

"There is no need to conjure me pants," he called back. "Alan loaned me some things on the chance I convinced you to go on a romantic date."

There were probably few people who could claim an ex-boyfriend was trying to set them up with a new one, but that was the sort of oddity to others that seemed normal to her. And either way, Alan had been a friend before, during, and after their failed attempt to date. She squared her shoulders and headed back to the living room, only to stop as she saw Byron. Oh, how dare he. He wore a rather ordinary piece of male formal attire, and he had tied his hair back at his neck, and he still looked like a prince. It had to be a Ruler Cultivator thing, even a Deactivated one.

"I can almost hear you thinking." He caught her hand and turned her in a circle to admire the play of light over her body. "You're gorgeous, Jean."

She looked into his eyes and saw the smoldering hunger as he gazed at her. And, for the first time, she felt as gorgeous as he thought she was. "Just remember that when you see the girls I went to school with."

"Don't worry about it. Remember, I have great taste. I go for quality every time."

Reunions were always held at the school where they had originated, in whatever building would be large enough for the graduating class and their 'plus one' guest if they brought one. Byron studied the building curiously and realized it was likely used for sports; not a bad choice, given the size of the attending class he could identify. At this time of their lives, Jean no longer stood apart from her classmates visually, and he could only hope that gave her comfort now. No wonder she and Shana understood each other, though. Shana hadn't skipped semesters, but she might have if she hadn't had her Cultivators at her side to keep her happy. Jean had had no one—until now.

Things went unexpectedly pleasant and peaceful for the first hour. Jean reunited happily with some of her favorite former teachers, talked university adventures with a couple classmates, but she generally avoided any and all others present. Byron finally convinced her to dance with him to at least one song, and she relaxed even more. He had made no efforts to disguise his identity, and she had not asked him to either, so more than one eye watched them with immense curiosity.

As they left the dancefloor, he felt her entire body tighten under his arm, and he looked quickly to see three lovely woman approaching. During his career as an actor, he had of course been around a fair few flawlessly beautiful people of all genders. He had never seen one explicitly next to Jean, other than Shana herself, whom he rightfully could not count because of a different but equal bias. Looking at Jean compared to the perfectly normal mortals, he was fascinated that her aura truly did make her more beautiful beyond physicality. Gods help the world if there was a witch who happened to be as physically beautiful as she was internally; she would hold the world in her palm. "No bloodshed," he murdered to Jean.

"Darn it." She fell back on her acting roots and smiled with natural ease. "It's been a while." Damned if she would lie and say it was nice to see them.

"Long enough to see you stopped being a lazy slob," the one in the lead countered with dripping politeness.

"I see we're going right for the gloves off! Gosh, that will save so much time. Perhaps you could at least introduce yourselves to my date before you regail him with your lack of manners. Ladies, meet . . ." She trailed off. Tempting as it was to use his famous name, she didn't want to do that without his permission.

Byron took the choice happily out of her hands. "Byron Rancul."

"Wait." Three faces began to lose color. "That Byron Rancul?"

"Well far as I know I'm one-of-a-kind, rather like a fancy flower." He swung Jean's hand up to his lips and almost grinned at the light of humor and delight in her eyes. "A mutual friend introduced us, and it was love at first sight."

"She's a better sight now than she was fifteen years ago," another of the women sniped. "However do you keep all that weight off, Jean?"

Without missing a beat, Jean retorted, "Byron is more than able to help me burn off an extra slice of cake here and there."

Byron hastily bit back a laugh as he watched a pause, brief confusion, and then bright red fill three faces as the implications hit. "With much enthusiasm," he demurred. "But I think we've had enough of this delightful event, haven't we, Jean?"

Jean had more than reached her limit. She took a step forward and lowered her voice. "Just because my bust size is higher than your grade scores is no reason to be cruel. Every biting word you have ever spoken is only going to come back to bite you. I would start an exercise regiment of kindness as soon as possible. Your souls are bloated with muck." That said, she turned on her heel and walked away.

Byron followed her quickly and said nothing as they headed out to her electric carriage. He didn't blame her for not wanting to stay. He was also not surprised when she let him drive without a protest. She said nothing at all as she curled in the corner of the passenger seat. She didn't seem upset, though. Just . . . contemplative. When they got back to the apartment, she went into her room and shut the door. He let her be. It was late, so he changed into pajamas for bed. He locked doors and windows, shut off lights, and noticed it was still silent in her room. She had been alone with her thoughts for long enough, so he walked down and opened the door, and then leaned in the doorway with a brow lifted.

She was standing in front of her full-length mirror with her arms crossed. She wore nothing except a strapless black bra and matching black underwear. Desire coiled greedily inside his body. She was soft and round and supple. She hovered right at the precipice between the plump shape of magic users and the fitness of the physically inclined. Was he biased to think she was perfect? Oh, without a doubt, and he did not care. "Reassuring yourself that everything is where you want it?"

"Mm." She tilted her head. "Sometimes I just feel like being vain and admiring myself. I'm not ashamed to admit it. After fighting to look this way, I think I'm entitled to my pride. It hurts no one, and it sure keeps me on my exercise and food lifestyle."

"You also like the exercise. It's that Dark core in you."

"You be quiet." She turned to profile and sighed. "Now if I could just find a way to thwart the weight of aging on my bust, I'd be happier. I am absolutely okay with growing old. Bring it on. I will be a rocking old lady with faded hair and wrinkles. But I'm going to be buying industrial-grade bras to hold these buggers in lest they bang against my knees."

"And I'll still think you're the most beautiful creature I've ever known."

It was the rasp in his voice as much as the words themselves that finally made her realize how precarious her position was. She hastily reached for a robe but it was too late. His arms closed around her and drew her back against his hot body. "Let me go," she whispered. Before she lost more of herself inside him.

"No." One hand slid slowly down her leg, the other splayed across her stomach. "I think this has gone on long enough, Jean. Do you really want to focus on only the future? We're just going to suffer." He tilted her chin up so that she was forced to look at him. "Where there's a will, there's a way. Isn't that what you've told others? Who knows how much time we have? Do you want me to leave and never know what it could have been for us as lovers? Let's say I can't come back, that someday you do marry someone else to produce that future lineage. Do you want to miss this chance for happiness to your soul?"

She let out a long breath as she felt the inescapable presence of Destiny. She just couldn't fight anymore. She was so tired of being lonely and alone. Even if it tore at her soul when he left, she could not let go now. "No," she said softly. "I don't want that. Be with me. Be my lover for however long we have." She curled her arms back around him and savored how it felt to be desired by someone like him. How it felt to desire him in return. "Just promise me something. Promise that when you leave, you won't say goodbye. I'm not sure if I could bear it."

"I promise." He turned her in his arms, lifted her, and tumbled her down onto the bed. Smiling, he ran a finger over the edge of her bra. "Am I allowed to say that I like how this looks on you?"

She grinned. "Wait until you see what else is in my dresser."

She awoke alone in bed a few weeks later and knew he was gone. She had known it would happen. Shana had said the fight was done. She rolled over on a soft sound of pain and buried her face in the pillow where he had slept. It hurt. It hurt more than anything she had ever known. Her very soul felt shredded.

She had been careful to not say she loved him. She had refused to tear him apart like that, and now she wouldn't see him again. She had to pick up, go on, and move past.

Eventually. Right then, she just wanted to cry.

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