It felt a little nostalgic for Desiree to return to Axium's landmass, even if she was not in the main city any longer. She was somewhere to the distant west in a city built across the top of a lake. Of course, she thought to herself as she looked out the window of her hotel room. Where else would he have chosen to set down roots? Most people tended to be drawn to where their element was strongest, but Water Flower Elements happened to have a stronger draw.
She had given it a day or two to find her nerve and determine how she best wanted to proceed. Even knowing going in that her soul mate had sounded to Sam like he was more amiable than the rest about coming home to her did not take away the nerves. Contrary to popular opinion, she and her fellow Dark Defenders could be shy now and then. Or rather, their lack of ease with strong emotion could manifest as varying levels of anxiety that resembled shyness.
Time to take the plunge, literally. She huffed out a little breath and went to grab the swimming bag she had packed. She already wore her suit underneath a loose swim robe. It had been chosen as much for comfort and durability as it had for the fact that it flattered her curly ultramarine hair and vibrant purple eyes. Her light brown skin glowed just a bit as well, with a little shimmer that almost resembled light on ocean waves. She would have pulled out all the stops and completely done her hair and makeup as well if it hadn't been for her intentions of being in a pool; she had yet to figure out how to combine the two, though she sure kept trying!
The swimming club where Uwe Andres both worked out and worked sat mere blocks from her hotel. At this time of year on Protea, the club got rather busy as people escaped the heat. However, at that time of morning, the club would in fact be empty except for Uwe and perhaps one or two students he was teaching how to swim. Desiree had a bit guiltlessly used her ability to look sweet and innocent despite her age to get that information from an employee, and she had even gotten permission to use the pool early. She was a champion diver from Lux, after all, well-respected from the university's club.
She entered the club and checked in and then stopped at the locker rooms to leave her bag and robe. With a little breath to stabilize herself, she headed for the pool directly. She stepped into the large area and smiled to see it surrounded by water-loving plants and protectively covered by large glass windows. It could be used year-round, and it had been built to resemble the lake the city sat on rather than some human-made structure.
Her eyes moved across the large pool to the smaller trainer pool, and she stopped breathing for a moment. Ulyen. He looked exactly as she remembered. A taller than average height, though still a bit shorter than his prince—it had not stopped him as a Commander, though. Beautifully tanned skin from his constant exposure to the sun as a swimmer. Peach hair that had once been quite short but now hung in a short ponytail. Hazel eyes that shifted between green and gray depending on the light he stood in. An unfairly perfect physique also from his constant physical lifestyle.
Desire and love bubbled up equally inside her body and soul as she watched him gently help a little boy try to paddle in short circles. Still waters ran deep inside her Caretaker. They had been inevitably drawn together from the start. She had met him only days after his appointment as Commander, and he had been a bit over twenty-one while she had been approaching her seventeenth birthday. Too young to feel desire, yet he had just been so wonderful to her eyes. He had made her inexorably happy. They had become almost instant friends, spending all free moments together.
She genuinely did not remember a moment where she had felt herself fall in love, or when she had realized it had happened. Did not remember ever needing to tell him she loved him, or need to hear him say it. So many things had not been needed to be said between them. Not long after her twenty-first birthday, desire had begun to well. She had kissed him a shadowy corner during her birthday party, and the next day he had placed himself on her suitor list, but only as a formality.
She had accepted the suit on the day of her twenty-fifth birthday party, but, truly, it had been a formality as well. They had belonged together. They still did. She watched him a few moments more and then strode determinedly toward the deeper end of the lap pool where the diving boards in varying heights sat. She felt overdue for making a bit of a splash, as it were.
Uwe had known there would be an additional attendee that morning, but not who other than knowing it was a diver from another landmass on vacation. He didn't mind the company. They would use different parts of the pool, so it wasn't as if they would be in each other's way. He finished up the lessons and sent the two kids packing. He had to smile as he watched them scamper out. He had gotten one to the point of feeling safe putting her face in the water, and the other no longer sank when trying to paddle. Progress was progress!
He had just gotten out of the trainer pool to head for the actual lap one when he spied movement. He automatically glanced upward at the highest diving board and felt his heart stop. A familiar figure with familiar ultramarine hair that moved like the waves on the shore. Longing welled sharply inside him. "Delilah," he barely managed to whisper.
She propelled herself out into the air, entered two neat tumbles, and then extended in time to enter the water so cleanly she barely made a splash. She did not immediately surface, and he could see the faint form of her swimming along the bottom. Rulers and Defenders alike of the Water Flower Element could breathe underwater. He couldn't, but he could still hold his breath far longer than average, with or without his magic. Without thinking twice, he walked to the side of the pool and dove in.
Desiree did not know he had joined her until she saw him swimming closer rather quickly. She paused to let him catch up, and she nearly laughed as he caught her in his arms. She wiggled free and swam off swiftly, yet she felt no surprise as he gained on her rapidly. He had earned some awards after all. She let him catch her again and then got free. They chased each other back and forth across the pool until she finally surfaced because she couldn't contain the laughter. He surfaced right beside her, and she whirled to throw her arms around his neck.
He could touch the bottom though she couldn't, so he caught her weight easily. "Delilah," he said a little hoarsely. He buried his face in her wet hair for a moment. "You're real. I didn't imagine you."
"I'm real. You're real." She eased back enough to hungrily look at his face. "My name is Desiree Rikavet now. I . . . I remember everything. I didn't for a long while, as I'm sure Sam told you, but everything came to a head a few days ago during our current war. Clara helped us regain our memories, and we Cultivators determined to bring our Commanders home where you belong." She held onto his shoulders as he moved toward shallower water until she could also stand. "I know," she told him gently as she saw the look on his face. "I know what happened to you. Our queens and princes are even now looking for the solution."
Uwe let out a long breath. "Which is reassuring, to be sure. It does not take away a sense of inadequacy, Ree." He released her and waded toward the side to pull himself out of the water. "I would go back with you anyway," he admitted, "but I can't help but question whether I am more of liability than a help to either you or my prince until whatever this solution is, is found." He helped her out of the pool as well, and he felt hunger tighten his body as he watched water flow down her body in a way he wouldn't have minded doing personally. "Did you pick that suit to torment me?" he managed to ask.
"Maybe. Just a little." She gave a little gasp as he grabbed her up and kissed her so hotly that she felt steam start lifting from both of their bodies. She could only hold onto him and drown wonderfully in the wicked desire stealing all rational thought. Too long. She had waited too long to feel that way again. A similar ache welled up inside her heart and soul equally until she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him just as wildly. They finally eased back a breath and she whispered huskily, "You had better agree to come home with me, or I will not be responsible for my actions. I'm told it can be terrifying when I finally lose my temper."
"I remember the few times it happened. It's very terrifying." He rested his forehead against hers and smiled. "More terrifying is letting you go. That moment when we interlocked our souls so long ago . . . we never truly came apart. Even in death. Those holes inside me I've felt all my life . . . they're filling now. You complete me, more than anything else."
"Then I think it's time you started getting things in order." She snuggled against his side as they walked toward the locker room. A familiar warning sense had started dripping through her soul though she kept it quiet. Her bracelet with its two Masks sat in her bag. "Lux has a big swimming club as well, you know. I utilize it frequently enough for the diving boards. And they always need good teachers. It's always warm enough year-round to swim. And I wouldn't mind if you still competed." She laughed. "I'll make you look extra handsome and Shanae can take some photos of you being all sexy swimmer."
A hint of red climbed his neck. "Desiree."
"Oh, trust me, just give in now. She's probably already thought of it, and she's making her way through all of us to do figure studies. You'll eventually be naked for her camera anyway. At least the pool shoot you can have some clothes on."
He could only shake his head. "You still make the ridiculous sound reasonable. And you still have that alarming ability to be sweetness and charm yet never change your mind once it is set. Also, you still don't give a damn for rules you deem bothersome."
"It's a gift. And you love me for all of that." She kissed his chin and then casually picked up her bracelet to put it on.
"To be sure." His hand shot out and curled around her arm just under her bracelet. His hazel eyes looked more gray than not where they had narrowed. "What do you sense that I cannot yet, my orchid?"
"About that war?" she said calmly. "It's still on-going. Also, duck."
He didn't ask questions. He just dropped flat and dragged her down with him. The evil magic fired by the Phantasmat missed them by mere inches, and Uwe scowled at Desiree from where they both knelt on the ground. "Thanks."
"Stay there," she ordered as she tugged off her Mask and it grew to full size. She pulled it on to call her armor and then hopped to her feet. Her magic lay in the defense category so she put a watery shield around Uwe that would absorb most anything thrown at it. Being a Dark core meant a leaning to the physical side as Clara had once noted to Rachel, and so Kellie and Desiree alike actually had surprising adeptness with weapons. For Desiree, it was a pinwheel she could throw at the enemy and have always come back to her hand.
She chucked the pinwheel at the Phantasmat and drew not just blood but also its ire. It came after her directly, and she darted away swiftly. It gave chase around the locker room, and she timed the run as best she could before tossing her pinwheel again. She actually missed, and it bounced off the wall only to land beside Uwe.
The Phantasmat cornered Desiree near a wall and started to lunge at her, but the pinwheel suddenly bit into the back of its neck, continued through, and severed its head wholly before being calmly caught by Desiree again. The body of the monster hit the ground at the same time as its head, and both dissolved.
Desiree looked at where it had been and then smiled at Uwe. "Perfect shot."
He made a little bow. "I still have my bow skills, and many projectile weapons are enough similar to mean I had a decent chance here. Which I could tell you intended." He walked over and removed her Mask for her. "Any damage?"
"Not a bit," she assured him. She smiled slowly. "But if you'd like to come back to my hotel to inspect me closer, I would not mind the company. I can tell you everything once we're there. There's been a lot happening."
He quirked a brow. "You do know I'm scheduled to have lessons all day."
"Oh, I already took care of that."
Laughter welled inside. She had never changed, and he could have been no happier. "I know we've never needed to say it, but I really do love everything about you."
Her purple eyes sparkled like the seas. "That's fair. I love everything about you, too. Let's get out of here. I don't feel like sharing you with anyone for a little while yet." As he kissed her, she felt happiness bubble anew. Her Caretaker. Finally, where he belonged.
* * * * *
Siobhan and Edgar arrived in almost the very center of the desert. Realizing it, Siobhan complained at Edgar. "This had better be a short walk! I am not walking all over this entire desert!"
He wisely hid a grin. "I don't think we'll have to be quite that diligent. You can give us a relative direction to follow, and I should be able to narrow it down further. If it is too far, we can try transporting closer."
Grumbling, she said, "You and Shana always make everything sound so much more reasonable than I or Rocky think it is."
"Well, of course. That's our job. Just as it's your job to help us have fun and play now and then."
She grinned. "Well, of course." She lightly touched the Mark hidden under her shirt and reached out with her power. A white beam of light fired off into the distance and after a few moments, an answering beam came back. The recoiled beam had been quick to reach them, so Siobhan felt her hopes lift.
They started walking in the direction of the beam, and it did not take long before Siobhan noticed something unusual yet oddly not out of place. She bit her lip to hide a smile and said nothing. A few minutes later, noticing it had not ebbed, she cleared her throat. "Edgar?"
"I think we're almost there."
"That's all fine, but did you know we're leaving a trail?"
She caught his arm and turned him around, and a flustered look filled his face as he saw the distinct trail of plants that had bloomed from under his feet where he had walked. It looked like a little strip of green leading from their starting point to right under them. "What was that about only Shana having her Nature power make things follow her?" she asked politely, but with humor. "I admit, she has fauna following her, but you can't deny that it looks like flora follows you!" She gave in and started giggling as he glowered at her. "Oh, you big baby! It's not that terrible. And it might be just because of the desert." She went on her toes to give him a smacking kiss. "I think it's beautiful," she whispered. "And so very you. You're the quiet force of Nature that softly grows around us and makes us happy."
"You're making me tempted to have us get sand in some terrible places," he warned, but with a smile. He instead took her hand and kept walking, and he did his best to ignore the greenery following. "It should not be much farther."
It took a few minutes more of walking before they both felt a surge of magic under the land. Water magic. A look around did not show a white stone amid the brown sands, and when Edgar looked beneath them, he did not see any caves. "Send off the signal," he told Siobhan. "I'll meld into the land and hope I find it."
"Okay." She sent out the signal and watched as he just seemed to disappear into the ground beneath himself. Another Nature Ruler gift. Shana had that one too, though she rarely used it. As an adult anyway. She and Edgar alike had guiltlessly used it as kids to win games of hide and seek.
She saw a sudden glow from the ground and then Edgar was standing beside her again. She blinked at him once, then twice, then bit her lip. "Uhm."
He swiped at the mud on his face with a scowl. It covered him from head to toe and dripped from his hair. "I found the water in the desert. And our stone." He held out his hand and there sat the glowing white stone on his palm. "Leave it to Ulyen's stone to have a practical joke waiting. His humor was as ironically dry as Desiree's is!"
Siobhan wisely said nothing as she touched the stone and felt it soft cool like the water it had been in. A beam of light fired off, and she watched move across the sky before turning to look at Edgar. He touched the ground to track the beam the rest of the way, and it finally stopped over an expanse of plains on Lux's landmass that looked familiar. "Logical," he said. "That was the area where I remember Navidan having a home. Back to home ground, but to the far south where the plains are. You know. The place known for not just random storms but random thunderstorms?"
She smiled wryly. "Of course." She began to giggle. "But maybe we should detour first for a bath or shower?"
He sighed. "Yeah. Might be a good idea."
* * * * *
The port city where Shana and Rocky landed also sat on Vericity's landmass and so the main language still happened to be Vericin. The language had spread across most of the land, though it had its biggest hub in the main city. Shana very looked forward to a time again when the galaxy would have one basic language and all worlds would have one or two special ones all their own. She felt confident in it happening by the Resurrection Era, especially now knowing how long off that lay. Almost five thousand years.
Thinking it as she and Rocky strolled through the port, she murmured, "It makes sense it would take that long. It took over five thousand years for Protea to reach this point with technology to replace magic, and it's been that long for the worlds to be frozen and sick. I could see it taking the same amount of time for magic to regain its full footing and the worlds be ready to heal. And maybe that answers a question we've always wondered."
"Why Cultivators are immortal yet none have ever really reached a normal lifespan let alone an immortal." Rocky tightened his arm around her shoulders. "I can imagine how odd it would be for us to be the only immortal ones so we can live to the next Era and raise the kingdoms again, and the worlds themselves would be either off-put or unnerved by such a thing. Yet it's perfect normal and acceptable for Cultivators to have immortality, so both we and the worlds are comfortable with that coming outcome." He cocked his head. "I've always wondered. Are there any Cultivators that aren't immortal? I know Caretakers become immortal themselves by proxy of absorbing it from their lover, but is there a circumstance where a Cultivator isn't immortal? I guess that would be hard to determine with our propensity to die early and never meet our grandchildren."
She thought about everything she had learned from her Sight over her very long life. All too often, she learned random tidbits of information that she never realized might be important until they were. "There is actually a very specific circumstance that would make a Cultivator mortal. It would have to do with their Caretaker, actually. Something about their Caretaker that would make them incapable of being immortal and therefore the Cultivator would adopt their mortality instead. I don't know if we'll see it happen or not, but I know it could happen."
"Interesting." He grinned. "Maybe that Cultivator might be lucky enough to meet their grandkids!"
She laughed. "Of all things for Cultivators to lament in having an ironically short life that has to be the most prosaic." She looked out into the distance as her Sight stirred, and she murmured, "Someone of our generation will get that gift too. Huh. I don't know who, but I can see they will." Her eyes softened. "That kind of makes me happy, you know? That we get to be the first to enjoy immortality and maybe grandkids."
"Considering you Defenders have already suffered a lot more than any other Cultivators in history, I think that's damn fair," he muttered. "And at the least, we do know Destiny gives in proportion to what she takes." Even quieter he added, "Which means you and Siobhan had damned well get what you want most in existence!" Peace for the former, and freedom for the latter. He did not know what it would take to bring those things, but he expected it to happen. He would also do whatever it took to help.
They continued their stroll through the port as two travelers might until Shana felt the familiar pulse of Dark through her body. It tugged them toward an open market where vendors sold all manner of things. A stall selling pretty jewelry pieces pulled her in, and she felt glad that her jacket actually covered the glow she knew inevitably coming from her Mark.
A subtle, almost imperceptible, glow from a black stone set with seashells caught her eye. It looked very like the other two stones they had found, and when she picked it up under pretext of looking closer, it glowed a little stronger as she felt the cool Water inside. She smiled and looked at the vendor. "I'll take this, please!" She handed over money and then walked back over to Rocky. "There we go. Let's get to a quiet spot so we can see where next to go."
He glanced around and spotted an area under some sea trees that looked empty of others. They headed over that way, and Shana deliberately let her Dark well as she touched the stone. This time it let off a pulse, and she tracked it with her mind's eye as it finally stopped over another island, but this one entirely unpopulated. It held a dense forest where rain always fell—the only predictable rain on Protea—and it had been marked off limits for settling since before even the Royal Era. Protea tended to protect its strongest pockets of Nature power covetously. "There we go. Protea's rainforest." She smiled wryly. "Of course for Navi it would be."
"I'm not going to get hit by lightning again, am I? Because there was that one time on Gladiolus . . ."
"Both Amanda and Juliet apologized for that, and it really wasn't their fault you went running off without supervision," she reminded him. She laughed when he glowered at her. "I think you'll be fine this time. I'll protect you as your Caretaker, alright?"
He smiled. "I have no doubts of that."