Kellie had bided her time a little to go find her soul mate not out of nerves but because she had been determining her various plans of attack. Talon had always been such a stubborn sort, and she had worked hard over several years during the Royal Era to win him over. She only had a handful of days that could be cut abruptly short sooner than she liked because of Andromedian.
She finally squared her shoulders and made her way toward the school where he taught hexball, a sport so named since the ball involved had bright red hexagons on it. Players kicked it around a field and tried to kick it well enough to get past players who guarded goals on both sides. It took speed, dexterity, and stamina to play, so she felt little surprise that Talon—Tyson—had been drawn toward it.
As she reached the edge of the field, she felt her heart ache. She could have mistaken him for no one else. Still fair-skinned, enough to sunburn if he didn't cover up, still with cornflower blue hair, and still with metal gray eyes. Still her own height, so seemingly too small to be a good Commander to the quite tall Delphinium Prince yet so fast and strong that he had legitimately been able to tackle the prince flat and hold him down. He had impressed more than one Defender with that! Smiling as she thought about it, she started across the field.
Tyson Gregori had no idea of her approach. He had his hands full with a dozen miniature players full of sass and speed, all of which refused to stop moving long enough to be checked if they got hurt. He blew his whistle in frustration and shouted, "Belinda, you're bleeding. Get your butt over here right now! I don't care if you've got an open shot!" He got spectacularly ignored as the blue-haired girl swiped the blood out of her eyes and then shot the ball right into the goal. "Very nice," he snapped, "now get over here."
Softly, behind him, he heard a familiar woman's voice say, "Don't suppose you need a doctor-in-training, do you?"
He froze. "Kacey," he breathed. He slowly turned around, and seeing her peach hair shimmering in the sun and her brown skin softly tempting his fingers into touching brought a powerful well of love and desire. He reached out carefully and his fingers cupped her cheek. "You're real," he managed. "You're not a dream." He quickly dropped his hand as Belinda skidded up. "You!" he scolded her. "Sit down! You took a foot to the head when you tripped, and I don't want you bleeding all over the grass!"
Belinda winced. "Sorry, coach. But I had a great shot!" She sat down on the bench and then smiled at the beautiful woman standing close. "Are you a doctor?" The woman had such an utterly healing aura to her that it seemed fitting.
Kellie smiled. "In training! I'm in advanced schooling right now. My name is Kellie Yu. I'm an . . . old friend of your coach." She grabbed the medical kit sitting nearby and started opening it. "Let me take a look here and we'll see how much damage was done."
Tyson felt more than a little nostalgic as he watched her work. They had met for the first time under similar circumstances. He had gotten injured during a training exercise with Jayden, and the other Commander had recommending finding Kacey Daffodil since she happened to be in the Protea palace and would be easier to access than going to Delphinium to find Sayena. He had walked into the gardens to find the Daffodil Cultivator, and he had found her perched a bit precariously on a chair to reach a bird feeder.
His speed had served him well. He caught her just as she tumbled, and even though she had jostled his wound, he had not really noticed the pain. He had been barely over twenty-one, and she had been just over sixteen, creeping on seventeen. There had been no sparks of those sorts between them, but something about her . . . it had caught his attention. He had not liked that much at all! He had put her down, introduced himself, and asked for a heal. She had obliged of course, and he had walked away thinking that was the end.
A smile tugged at his lips. He had never really stood a chance. She had decided that he had to be her soul mate, and that she would have him no matter what. Over the next four years, she had determinedly built a friendship with him—which he had not objected to—and she had told him repeatedly that when she was an adult, she would court him. He had shot the idea down each time it came up. Him? Deserve a Crown Princess who was a Dual Defender? To be sure, Sabin and Ulyen had twisted his ear almost literally over that opinion, but he had just not been able to shake a feeling of unworthiness.
And then she had turned twenty-one. And his ability to ignore how she had started stirring up his hormones became much harder to ignore. Slowly, steadily, more and more impossible. She had begun using her Metal element to craft beautiful, elaborate, tiny sculptures that took impossible amounts of time and magic, and she had sent them to him in carved metal boxes. Courtship gifts in Daffodil style. As the gifts became more complex, she looked more tired when he saw her. She had been pouring her heart and soul into her work, and each piece had breathed her love.
Then, at her twenty-fifth birthday party, she had revealed her stubborn Metal element side by demanding he rid her of her suitor list by accepting her suit. She had asked him to be her Caretaker, her future king, and to let her heal him when he was wounded, and to give him a home he had never had before other than on Delphinium. He had been so in love with her by then, so in need of her smile and her touch, that he had somewhat sort of skipped an official acceptance by just kissing her in front of everyone. A quick betrothal had followed, and then a marriage, and then he had willingly sacrificed it all in the end just so she survived. He would do it again in a heartbeat. Any Caretaker would.
"There we go!" she said, breaking his thoughts. She had just finished wrapping a bandage around Belinda's head. "It's not too severe. Put some ice on it for today and it should be clearing by tomorrow. I've already got the blood stopped here."
"Thank you, Doctor Yu!" Belinda said happily. "It doesn't hurt either!"
"You're not playing until it's fully healed," Tyson told her mildly. "And don't push me, kid."
Belinda rolled her eyes. "Yes, uncle." She stuck her tongue out at him briefly and then ran back onto the field to join her teammates.
"Uncle?" Kellie asked politely.
"My elder sister is her mother," he admitted wryly. "Hang tight." He ran out to join the team and finish the lesson with a breakdown of pros, cons, and plans for the next practice. He suspected he might not actually be there for it, but he made the plans. If Kellie was there to bring him home, he did not see his stubbornness being capable of standing up to hers.
She sat on the bench and waited until he came back over to join her. He sat down beside her, and she said, "How much trouble are you going to give me, Ty?" She smiled as she turned more to face him. "Tell me now how much trouble you're going to give me so I know just how devious and underhanded I have to get in order to win you over again."
He raked a hand through his hair on a sigh. "Kacey . . . Kellie, you know what happened to me. I can't imagine Sabin sending you out here without warning you. What good am I to you, my Defender? What good am I to my prince? My magic is what let me sense you in danger and my ability to use poisonous metal blasts helped make up for my being smaller than most of the other Commanders. Let's say you made me a new weapon. Great. How do I know when you need me? How do I know when Robert needs me? Alright, maybe I've retained my odd connection to time-space that means I feel fluctuations, but that ability mostly just gave me headaches anytime Sabin or Claret used their magic."
"I imagine you've had one hell of a headache lately," she said mildly. "The Statice branch of the Blossom Field galaxy has been . . . causing trouble."
"I've basically had what feels like a spike shoved in my head for the last two months," he muttered, only to break off as her hands framed his face and soothing magic flowed from her touch. The pain evaporated so swiftly he nearly slumped over, but she caught him safely and held him against her shoulder. Her scent, her feel, swamped him with memories and made pain bubble in a way she could never heal. "Kel." He turned his face into her neck.
Tears burned her eyes as she held him tighter. "Ty, I can't let you go. Not again. You destroyed something inside me when you sent me away back then. Even not remembering you in this life, something always . . . hurt. I know why you did it. I accept why you did it. I'm a Defender. I sacrificed myself not long ago for my queen. I understand what love makes us do. But . . . I can't let go again. We were given another chance at the life stolen back then. We could have millennia together in this life, possibly share something no other Cultivators and Caretakers ever had, before we someday ascend to the Realm." She pressed her face to his hair. "Don't tell me to give that up because you're scared. I'm scared, too."
He eased back and straightened up to see the tears trembling on her lashes. He brushed them away and then said roughly, "Damn you. You always cut right through to my soul. Why can't I resist you?" He cupped her neck under her hair and tugged her closer for the kiss they both needed to put the past behind them where it belonged. Somehow they had come together again.
She eased back a breath and found a smile. Everything was still there. The love, the joy, the desire. Time had not changed the most important things for their souls had not changed. "Tyson." She frowned as he abruptly released her and stood. "Ty?"
"Damn it, I told myself I wouldn't let this happen," he muttered. He didn't turn to look at her and fought to keep himself from making the wrong decision. He had determined to do this ages before, even long before Sabin had hunted him down. "Just because we were together in the Royal Era doesn't mean we have to be now."
Her fingers gripped together. "Are you saying you don't want me anymore?"
"No!" He turned quickly. "No, that's not where I was going with this." He huffed out a breath. "I just . . . want you to have a choice. You always get so little choice. I want you to love me and want to be with me because of who we are now, not who we were back then. I don't want you to be here because you feel obligated. Argh." He turned away a bit. "This is so damned hard to explain!"
She looked up at him with a calm smile. "Tyson, I made my choice before I was born the first time. You know the saying, that a Cultivator does not choose an inferior mate? It's not a joke. Destiny gave us a choice when our Seed first formed, asked what we wanted most, and we told her. I chose you before I was born, I chose you again when I met you in the Royal Era, and I am here because I choose you again. I will pick you every time, will never want anyone else for my soul mate and Caretaker. Do you think anyone else could handle me? I don't. Want to be with you because of the now?" She shook her head. "There will never be a time where I don't want to be with you."
He turned sharply to look at her, and he could see the utter conviction inside her beautiful eyes. The tension left his shoulders, and he began to feel a little foolish. What had made him think she would want someone else? He still wanted her. They had not become such different people that they had lost their connection. Whatever differences they did have, he wanted to know. He wanted to spend forever finding out what made Kellie both the same and different from Kacey, and he wanted her to see what did and did not make Tyson Gregori the same person as Talon Kensington. "I still can't fight you," he told her.
"I would remind you here that you should never argue with Metal Flower Elements, but you have the same element." She grinned. "Maybe you're the flexible metal, and I'm the inflexible, and together maybe we make something unbreakable." She gave a laugh as he scooped her off the bench and high in his arms. She had always loved that they had the same height. She never had to go far to find the arms to hold her or the lips to kiss her. "Does that mean I win? You'll come to Lux with me?"
"You win." He lowered her back to her feet and pressed his forehead to hers. "I'm sure I can be picked up as a coach at a school or the university there. And I'll do whatever I can to be your Caretaker and a Commander for my prince."
"That last will be easier than you think," she admitted. "Ty, your magic and weapon are not gone for good. There's a stone of Light holding one and a stone of Dark holding the other, and our queens and princes hunt them even now." She evaluated the feeling she had been sensing inside her soul for many minutes by then. "Also, we're a bit in the middle of a war right now. That's the other reason I came for you now. Our enemy has this thing against Defenders, and he made a threat that sounded like it was against our Caretakers."
"Oh, lovely!" He scowled. "Now she tells me."
"Well, better now than later. Also, hang on." She grabbed his shirt and yanked him down with her to the grass. The evil magic missed them entirely, and she rolled back up to her feet to see the Phantasmat bearing down on them quickly across the field. She grabbed her Mask off its earring and it grew to full size. She put it on to call up her armor and told Tyson, "I trust you." She held out a hand to call her three-headed spear and then ran forward to meet the monster partway.
Tyson carefully got to his feet and watched as she more than easily held the monster at bay. However, the best she could do was hold it off. She could not get a clear enough shot to actually destroy it, and her magic lay in defensive fields. He looked around swiftly and then spotted the hexball on the field. Inspiration struck.
Kellie spotted him running and realized his intent. She maneuvered as best she could to get the Phantasmat's back toward him, and it gave a satisfying yelp of pain and surprise when the hexball smashed into the back of its head. It whipped around instinctively toward the new threat, and Kellie took the chance to shove her spear in its back. She ripped upward as she pulled back, and she tore through its heart along the way. It flopped over onto the grass and then dissolved. "Nice shot!" she told Tyson.
He walked closer on a smile. "I'd prefer my scimitars over a hexball, but, hey, at least my speed still counts for something." He reached out to remove her Mask and her armor went away. "Things have been . . . interesting for you, I think." He skimmed his knuckle over her arm where he could see her fully bloomed Flower Mark as a Defender. It had the familiar sparkling edge that meant she was the only Defender of Daffodil. "I want to be there," he said again softly. "To support you. With or without magic. I can just use a hexball as a weapon if needed."
She wrapped her arms around his waist and leaned in to kiss him tenderly. "I'll help you pack," she promised. Her lips curved. "Tomorrow. I think what's left of today should belong to just us. I have a nice hotel room."
"I have a nicer house, and probably bigger bed."
"That works for me. See? I can be agreeable."
He grinned. "I guess I'm lucky that those times you decide to be agreeable are the ones where I most want you to agree."
* * * * *
Returning to Vericity's landmass meant going to the next city to the west of that main one. Siobhan and Edgar caught themselves a hotel room to be sure and decided to rest for the remainder of the day since she hadn't felt anything that implied they had a specific direction to go. The problem with hunting the stones of Light for the Delphinium Commanders lay in that none of them had had homes on Protea because they had been Delphinium-based. They could logically assume they knew where to go when they got to Maxim's stone, but Talon's stone would not be so easy.
"And then again," Siobhan grumbled, "he is Dark-based. His personality might have been absorbed by the stones, too, and that means he's just tormenting us." She flopped on the bed to thumb through a book that had been in the room. "I still feel kind of bad for Sam, you know? He's the only one of Rocky's Commanders to have a Light core. At least your Commanders were evenly split at two-two."
Edgar smiled as he laid down beside her. "Actually . . . so are Rocky's."
She blinked and then realized. "Oh! Diego had a Light core. Of course. That was the only real difference between him and Vermillion on the surface." Underneath, of course, had been Vermillion's inability to understand love, and Diego's ability to simply ooze it in spades. "I guess it all does balance in the end!"
He threaded his fingers into her hair just to enjoy the curls clinging to his touch. "I think it equally has to do with the Cultivator that each Commander is set to be Caretaker for. Some of the Defenders need a matching core, and others need an opposing." He thought about Virginia. "Some need an opposing one more than most, really."
"And some like Dane have pretty strong aspects of the other," she noted. She sat up. "Maybe that was another reason why Liena and Dane were so close. I think we'll know for sure when we see how Dane and Aldan get along, since Aldan is that odd Light Shadow combination."
Edgar also sat up and studied her. "Is there such a thing as True Shadow? Literal equal Light and Dark. I ask because I figure as Apex you might know."
"I do," she agreed, "and there could be. It would take someone really special, though, and it would have to be something very deliberate by Destiny because Shadow power is as restricted as Memory, for a lot of the same reasons. I don't think even . . . Aria? I think the world was Aria. I don't even think Aria is True Shadow. I think the Rulers were either Light or Dark, which limited what all they could do. If anyone was going to produce True Shadow, though, it'd be them probably." She nodded. "If ever Shana or I feel it happen, I'll tell you, okay? Because we should. I mean, someone with True Shadow is half each of us, so we should notice it happen."
"Fair enough." He snorted softly. "For all we know, with the way you and I are, and our siblings are, it might be one of our daughters."
Siobhan considered that. "Plausibly, actually. I bet mostly on Rocky and Shana. We could ask Rachel!" She giggled. "Though she might not tell us."
"She's really good at being a Librarian, even an Apprentice one," he agreed wryly. He started to ask if she wanted to order dinner and then saw light pulse around her body. Her Marks appeared and began to glow. "You feel it."
"I definitely do!" She hopped up to her feet. "It feels strangely close, too." An odd look crossed her face. "Very close. Wait." She closed her eyes as she began to turn in a slow circle. She kept her eyes closed as she walked forward a few steps.
Edgar leapt forward but a bit too late. She walked right into the nightstand hard enough to bump the wall, and then it bounced back and bumped her with enough force to make her trip flat onto the floor. He fought back laughter as he knelt beside her. "Uhm. Don't do that please."
She scowled up at him. "Don't say a word." A glow caught her eye and she turned her head to look under the bed beside her. With a little creative wiggling, she managed to reach far enough under the bed to get the glowing item. She drew it out and blinked at the white gem in her hand. It fizzed and smoldered like a Metal element. "I don't . . . can't . . . Darn it, Talon!" she complained.
The gem glowed brightly white and then fired off a beam that went out through the window. Edgar ran over to look out and tracked the beam for as far as his eyes could. It kept on going. "East," he told Siobhan. "That's as best I can do for now. We can track further outside once I can get a hand on soil. Knowing Maxim, it's probably in the least likely place."
She crossed her arms where she still sat on the floor. "I'm beginning to feel as if Destiny is having far too much fun at our expense with this."
He had to smile. "Me, too."
* * * * *
"It fell on my head!"
"Yes, dear." Shana studied the black stone in her hand and fought to hide a smile. They had spent the day exploring Axium so she could show him where she had lived for thirteen years, and on the way back to the hotel they had been surprised by an unexpected falling object. "At least it wasn't hard to find?"
Rocky rubbed his head on a scowl. "Felt like being hit by a lead weight."
"Fitting for a Metal element's stone holding his dual scimitars." She watched the stone fire off a dark beam into the sky and tracked it with her mind's eye until it landed along a massive stretch of wall that had once bordered the Protea Kingdom's farthest limits. That sort of made sense. Maxim had taken his role as Commander and twin soul to Evan very seriously. "Since Diego doesn't have stones because he didn't get split, the next and last one is Maxim."
"Diego seems to have always been the odd man out since he wasn't a Commander. He still isn't."
The word hovered unspoken between them. Shana curled her arms around Rocky's waist and held on. She knew he would always feel sadness for the path Vermillion had chosen, but she also knew a little light of happiness glowed inside him that Diego would have his rightful place soon enough.
The pieces had almost all moved into the proper position for . . . something. Destiny may have been having fun at their expense, but she always had a reason. Especially now, with a Pivot around them. Who had the choice to be made, and what would it be?