Alexandria, contrary to any of her friends, did not bide her time. Her temper had been stirred enough by finding out she had already met her soul mate and he had kept his mouth shut. An oddity there, to be sure, and she almost couldn't blame him, but she did still feel more than a little pissed off.
They had met when they had been sixteen. He was not an entire year older, so it had been unsurprising to have their paths cross at the electric carriage show. Alexandria had gone with Shana in an effort to help her twin soul work on getting over her fear of ECs. At that point, Shana hadn't even been willing to contemplate driving a single-person let alone a full size machine. Alexandria had hoped that having her see how safe they normally could be might help the situation.
Strangely, it had worked. Shana had listened raptly as the workings got explained, and knowing how everything went together had helped lessen some of her fear. It had had a reciprocal effect on Alexandria by stirring a deeper interest to get into the workings personally. She had always loved tinkering, really, and she loved pretty carriages, so having the two combined suddenly became both feasible and tempting.
She had left Shana to ask a million questions and gone wandering off to look at one of the fancy carriages built for endurance racing. Sleek machines designed for distance, to get the furthest possible length on a single engine charge. Solar vehicles were not eligible for the competition, because they had an unfair advantage with Protea's excessive sunlight. Electric engines only. It had fascinated Alexandria, and she had accidentally bumped into a slightly shorter boy while studying things.
His pale blond hair and strawberry eyes had instantly captivated her. He had just made her happy somehow, and she had felt deeply intrigued by his upbeat personality and ability to get what he wanted without effort. They had only briefly introduced themselves while talking, and then she had had to be called away for Shana. She had never seen him again.
The sneaky bastard. Her eyes narrowed as she stalked toward the doors that led to the carriage garage where he was supposedly going over his machine for an upcoming race. He had known who she was, and he had kept his mouth shut. An impressive feat for him, sure, but no less worthy of her ire. He liked when she knocked down his door and yelled at him? Well, then he was about to fall in love all over again!
Diaz Francisco had more than established himself as a carriage racer, and part of that had to do with the fact that he did a lot of the work to his machines personally. He knew the engine intimately so knew best how to make it go as far as possible. He actually loathed the speed races because of their sheer danger. To be sure, the former companion-at-arms for High Prince Robert Delphinium who had been as trained as a Commander without being one and had been the Caretaker for the Hyacinth Defender Cultivator was well used to danger—he just preferred danger on the more predictable side that didn't happen at top speeds.
"Diaz!" a worker called. "You need a hand?"
"Nah!" he answered from where he was wedged under the carriage engine. His rolling cart allowed him relative mobility as he worked. "Go ahead and leave. I've got a bit more to finish up, and then I'm out as well."
"Alright, see you later." The man left his overalls on a hook and then headed out the main door. As he did, he passed a surprisingly tall woman with blue hair and cloudy white eyes who looked like she might be on the verge of violent temper. "Glad I'm not her target," he muttered under his breath. "And I pity whoever is!"
Diaz hummed under his breath as he worked, and then broke off as he heard the door slam open. Familiar Air magic danced along his skin like the touch of his soul mate's fingers. A smile began to tug at his lips. "You're late!" he called without sliding out from under the carriage. "Really, I expected you sooner, Risty."
Only he had ever gotten away with shortening her Ruler name in such a way. Shanae hadn't even done that; she had said that was Diego's special thing for her. Temper drained out of Alexandria as she sighed and shut the door more gently than she had opened it. "How is it I can never stay mad at you?" she wondered as she walked closer.
"It's a gift." A foot hooked under his knee and pulled, and he slid out from under the carriage to find himself staring up at a beautiful face he remembered far too well. She had haunted his sleep and his days, and walking away from her ten years before had only punched new holes inside him. "Arista."
She knelt down beside him and smiled. He looked the same as her memories, and the same though older than the decade before. Strawberry red eyes that always laughed at the world, pale blond hair that never managed to be unmessy and constantly tempted her fingers to touch, and skin tanned from his love of the sun. His Light core had pulled her in like a magnet. They had been inseparable in the Royal Era long before he had merrily told her parents that he intended to marry her as soon as they were legal, and though she had huffed at him, it had been for form. "You," she sighed, though fondly. "I guess I'm glad you've never changed, but, damn it, Diego!"
He sat up on a smile. "You didn't remember me. And I knew there had to be a reason. So I waited. It sucked, but I waited. When Sam contacted me recently, it made me happy. And, okay, maybe I wanted you to come after me. I love you most when you are cranky and temperamental and sassy and determined to have your way." He reached out to thread his fingers into her hair and slowly draw her closer. "Besides," he whispered against her lips, "waiting meant that being reunited as adults put nothing between us." He kissed her lingeringly until she had almost melted against him. "I could see myself seducing you right here, Arista."
"Don't you dare," she managed. Somehow she was smiling. He had always known just how to handle her. Hyacinth Cultivators needed a special sort of Caretaker, and hers had fit the bill more than most. "As I once told you ten years ago, my name is Alexandria Urias. But I accept Lex or Lexie as a nickname. The latter from only a few special people."
"Does that include me?" he teased.
He gained his feet lithely and tugged her up as well. She still stood a couple inches taller, but that hardly bothered him. She was the sort of Caretaker who needed less someone to physically protect her than to emotionally protect her, and, really, he was quite used to the former anyway since he had had to deal with Robert, too! He could not quite manhandle his lover, but he had other creative ways of handling her. "I'm Diaz Francisco, though I'm sure you remember that."
"I do." She huffed out a breath. "Diaz, I know you're not in the same position as our other Caretakers—which I assume you know about?" At his nod, she continued, "And I know you're probably already mostly ready to come home with me to Lux, because I know you." She ignored his grin. "Everything else . . . everything that has been happening . . . we need to discuss. Vermillion . . ."
He slowly shook his head. "Sam told me that as well, because Robert had told him. It hurt me. A lot. To see what Vermillion intended to do. I couldn't protect Chance," he added bleakly. "It was such a horror when we found his brother. But I . . . I tried. I tried to make Vermillion come home. Something there . . . I just had this feeling . . . nothing I did would matter. That we all . . . that the kingdoms were doomed. So I tried to protect Vermillion, hoped maybe my sacrifice might make him see the truth." He cupped Alexandria's face. "I'm sorry, Lexie. So sorry how that must have hurt you."
She dropped her head onto his shoulder and gripped onto his shirt tightly. "It nearly killed me," she managed. "Only because Shanae needed me could I stand strong. But . . . maybe . . . things are coming together the way they should." She straightened and smiled. "I think I've grown fond of this new Era, you know?"
"It has merits." His grin began to turn wicked. "You've got oil on your face now, from my shirt." He swipe at the smudge but only made it worse. "Hmmmm. That's unexpectedly sexy." He caught her chin with a finger and drew her closer to bite at her lower lip. She had such a perfectly kissable mouth. "I'm definitely thinking of seducing you here."
"Okay, no the floor is cold and probably dirty. If you must seduce me, you're doing it in a bed. Yours or mine, I don't care."
He let his fingers walk down the skin of her left upper arm where her Defender Mark appeared. Even hidden, the skin was exceptionally sensitive, especially to him. "You sure?" he whispered as he kissed her again.
* * * * *
Valerian Heights rivaled Vericity for sheer size and scale, which meant it had a higher level of rabble rousers who liked nothing more than to cause trouble. Some even did truly terrible deeds that tipped dangerously toward the evil side of the scale. But, then again, for the sort of evil not needing a Defender Cultivator, cities all had legal officers and legal investigators. The former handled the daily work of keeping cities safe, and the latter dove deep to investigate the crimes not so simple to solve.
Michael Donohue had always been driven to fight against evil. He had never really hesitated on his path to becoming an investigator. It just still flabbergasted him just how much damn paperwork there could be! He spent as much time filing things as he did chasing bad guys.
He backspaced on his PCM keyboard as he tried to close his ears and tune out everyone talking around him. The station did not lend itself to clear thinking. Sometimes he wondered how he ever got anything done with everyone constantly asking him for assistance. Hazards of being good at his job, and a born leader with it.
There were times he had considered giving it all up. A memorable moment recently with an idiot holding a knife had certainly made him think. The simple fact was, though, that while he could not fight wars any longer, he could at least do something help guard the peace of the world so beloved to his prince and queen.
He straightened and rubbed the back of his neck with a wry sigh. He had lost his magic and weapon as a Commander a long time ago. This was the only way he had of protecting anyone. Especially his twin soul. And especially his soul mate. His attention splintered at the thought. He covered his eyes with the palms of his hands and called himself every name in the book. Even just thinking about the impossibly powerful Daffodil Dual Cultivator who had stolen his heart in two lifetimes was enough to gouge at his soul anew.
"Okay, you lucky fool." One of his fellow investigators walked over to his desk. "How'd you do it?"
Michael blinked. "I believe I might have missed the first part of this conversation. How'd I do what to whom and when?"
"There's a woman waiting in the lobby for you to get off shift." He sighed wistfully. "Red hair to her waist, gold eyes that look like perfect glass, and a body that could wear anything and look stunning. She said she was an artist, but damned if she shouldn't be a model."
Michael could not find his voice at first. "Impossible," he managed to say. He had been sure that he would not see his lover ever again. They hadn't parted on the best of terms, and he knew she had been busy filling her role as Lead Defender. She also had not remembered him. Sam had tried to convince him to come home already; had he told Virginia the truth about everything instead?
The other investigator picked up a photo sitting on Michael's desk. It showed him a few years younger and a few years lighter hearted. He had his arm around a young woman with red hair. They grinned at each other rather than the camera. "The one you can't forget," he murmured. "The one you let go for her own sake."
"So to speak," Michael said softly. He shot to his feet. "Chief!" he called. "Can I talk to you?"
He left the floor less than half an hour later. He had asked for, and received, an indefinite leave time. All his open cases had been turned over to someone else. The chief had been very understanding, particularly since Michael had never asked for something like this before. He rarely asked for anything.
He stepped into the lobby and saw a familiar figure looking out the window. She did not look as powerful as he knew her to be, though she by far looked strong enough to handle most anything. The Lead Defender of the Rebirth Era. She had been commanded by Destiny to be the best of the Era, to be the strongest to protect the High Princes and High Queens of the Blossom Field galaxy. Though, to be fair, while another was stronger, it was Virginia Tungsten who bore the duties and the weight of the role, and she did so without a single complaint.
She looked no different from the last time he had seen her, other than being a few years older and now past adulthood. "Virginia."
She turned to look at him, her face unreadable, then her gold eyes abruptly lit with sheer fury, and her hand cracked across his cheek. "You cheeky bastard!"
A few officers going past hurried faster with muffled snickers. Michael ignored them as he took Virginia's arm and escorted her outside. "Did you walk from the hotel near here?"
"Yes." The word bit out between her teeth.
He wasn't surprised by her anger in the slightest, but he at the least knew how to handle it. "I'll take you to my apartment. We'll have privacy there."
Snidely, she asked, "Where have I heard those words before?" She got into his carriage and crossed her arms mutinously. She had hoped that she wouldn't be mad when she saw him again. She had hoped that she would be mature enough to put all of the past, far and recent, behind her so that they could focus on the future. So much for hoping. When she had seen him, she had been slammed so hard with so many emotions that she hadn't known what to do.
Her trip to Valerian Heights five years before had been an art study program. She had gone at the insistence of her friends, but she had felt bitterly alone without them. It happened that way a lot for Cultivators, especially Defenders, for they lived and experienced things very differently from the average person. Halfway through her study trip, she had met Michael. He had . . . dazzled her. Everything from his brown skin to his opal hair to his silver eyes had utterly captivated her. At twenty-two, she had more than been able to feel desire, and it had been unexpectedly powerful between them, almost as if they had already been adults.
Of course it had. She could see that now in hindsight, from looking at her princes and queens. Siobhan had even said it, that because they had fully matured in their last lives that hitting the right milestone in this one had moved them right to the finish line. The moment they could feel desire, they felt full desire for their soul mate. Shana and Siobhan, neither quite twenty-four, felt the same for their soul mate right now that they had after being adults in the Royal Era. Their birthdays would change nothing.
The same had happened for Virginia and Michael, though she had not fully realized it then. He had pursued her almost single-mindedly, and she had not really played hard to get, considering she had felt sure he must be her soul mate. They had become lovers with surprising swiftness, and she had been ready to ask him to come with her to Lux.
Instead, she had awakened near the end of her trip to find herself alone in bed. He had disappeared. She had looked, and looked, and she had not found him before needing to leave. He had gouged out new parts of her soul that had never healed. She had finally been forced to go home without him, left with the belief he must have been terrified by the force of what was between soul mates. It had scared her, too!
She felt like kicking him in addition to hitting him. It had taken her almost the entire week to have the nerve to see him. Anger and pain coiled inside her. He had known who she was back then. He had to have known! Sam had been adamant that all the Commanders had been born with memories intact. He had known he would tear out her soul by leaving her the way he had. He had acted like a normal Caretaker and seduced her, and then he had left!
Stubbornly silent on the drive to his apartment, she crossed her arms tightly and seethed in silence. Sneaky, self-serving bastard. He had always been that way. Out the door from his appointment, he had been determined to butt heads with her. Sparks had flown as hot as their shared Glass element. She had suspected he might be her soul mate, but she had refused to accept that Destiny would give her a mate so like herself!
True, she had admired his deep love for his prince and princess, but she had thought she disliked everything else about him intensely. He had used that to his advantage by making her so furious with him she never stopped thinking about him. Yet, the closer she drew to adulthood, the more sure she became that he had to be her soul mate. The qualities she thought she disliked, she found she appreciated because she liked having someone able to keep up with her!
He had weaseled the confession of her love out of her by cornering her and provoking her temper, as usual. His smug and superior attitude at hearing it had told her he had literally spent four years determined to embarrass her without once realizing that she couldn't love anyone that way but a soul mate. She had wiped the smug look off his face by throwing him in the fountain, and then she had decided that if he wanted to play that game then she would play that game.
Shortly after her twenty-fifth birthday, she had snuck into his room on Protea in the middle of the night and seduced him. Not that he had exactly been unwilling, especially after she had blithely promised to keep it a secret. Which she had. No, he himself had done all the work of getting them forcefully betrothed because of the laws, and it had kept her entire kingdom—parents included—in absolute stitches over the entire thing. As the dust had settled around them, he had finally looked at her and realized that he could never have gotten so far in if he hadn't loved her as well, and finally everything had aligned itself perfectly. Perhaps in perfect symmetry for her role as Lead, theirs had been the first relationship that had then set off the pairings of all the rest, other than Claret and Sabin, who of course never counted.
"Do I want to know what you're thinking?" he asked as he stopped the carriage and turned to face her. He thought he knew, but he wanted to hear her admit it out loud. He just wanted to hear her voice again, to help ease the pain of the last lonely years. He had only been half-alive without her.
"Remembering old times," she said easily as she got out of the carriage. A playful wind tugged at her hair and jacket as she tilted her head and smiled at him. "And your stupidity. And how things don't change."
"I'd apologize," he took her elbow and escorted her toward his apartment, "but I sure as hell wouldn't mean it. In the last Era, maybe I started out with the worst of intentions, but in this one I had the best of them. I loved you. I wanted you. And I wanted you to love me as well. You didn't remember me, so I had to make you fall for me all over again." He unlocked the door and let her inside.
"Actually," she countered with a sniff, "hindsight being so clear, I never fell in love with you. It was more that I had to recognize how I'd always felt. And, Mike? I don't hate you for that. I'd have done the same." She swung around with her arms crossed tightly. "I hate you for leaving me. You broke my heart and ripped apart my soul. Do you know how long I've been tormented by that summer? I honestly hurt no less to realize we had been together before, that I had forgotten you. It would have been blessed relief to not remember and feel that pain! I can't blame the ones who kept our memories from us. I can't. I barely survived five years. All of my life?" She slowly shook her head. "I would have died a million times by now."
He couldn't stop himself from reaching for her. He pulled her into his arms and held on fiercely as he buried his face in her hair. "I'm so sorry," he breathed. "I'm so sorry, love." He eased her back and framed her face with his hands. "I just . . . knew I couldn't go with you. That I would be a terrible danger to you and Evan alike once the inevitable wars began. So I . . . went away." He released her and paced away as he removed his jacket. He raked a hand through his short opal hair as he sought the words he wanted. "I lived in hell," he said in a low voice, "when I . . . when I felt you fall. You did, didn't you? Recently. Even without my magic or ability to feel you in danger, we had interlocked anew. And you . . . tore out of me."
"Michael . . . I'm so sorry." She said nothing for a moment and then sighed. "I sacrificed myself for Shanae. For Sayena as well, but mostly Shanae. A necessary horror, I guess. And I guess . . . maybe I can understand you. What you did. I'd have done the same." She abruptly laughed and sat down on the edge of the overstuffed couch he had in his living room. "What a pair we are! What a pair we've always been. When we weren't making war with one another, we were making love." She meant it in both a metaphorical and a literal sense, and she saw his lips curve slightly. He still looked as outrageously beautiful as she remembered, but it had always been the powerfully deep well of emotion inside his Dark core that had so thoroughly seduced her in both lives. "Why don't we coexist peacefully?" she wondered out loud.
He laughed as he walked over to sit next to her on the couch. He stretched out his long legs to prop them on the coffee table and stacked his hands behind his head as he leaned back comfortably. "Because we're too much alike. We're both ruthless when it comes to defending the people we love, and we'll stoop to just about anything to get what we want."
"That's true," she admitted. She shrugged out of her jacket and draped it over the arm of the couch. She smiled as his eyes automatically ran over her figure. She had chosen the snug gold dress on purpose.
"You're an evil woman," he murmured.
"I did not entirely know how to handle you a few years ago," she told him. "But I do now. And . . ." She leaned over to blow teasingly on his ear. "I have a million memories now of just what drives you crazy."
His lethal quickness had never relied on magic. His arm shot out and curled around her to yank her onto his lap. His hands fisted into her hair and he dragged her up for the kiss he had been craving for years. Memories of her had haunted him, tormented him. "Damn you," he said against her lips. "Damn me if you must, but know that there was no one else but you. Has been no one since you."
Her eyes shot to his in shock but his silver gaze looked steady and calm, and her Empathy could literally feel the truth inside him. Her heart ached and swelled. "Mike." She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him wildly. Her craving was just as deep and endless. She couldn't live without him. She knew that now.
Her dress had landed halfway across the room before she realized what was going on. Dizzy, breathless, she grabbed onto his shoulders for balance. "Wait," she managed to say. "Slow down. We need to talk."
"We can talk later. God, you're more gorgeous than I remember."
Her eyes closed in helpless desire as his hands eagerly shaped her body. "At least find a bed, will you? Couches are too small!" She grabbed him for balance as he stood without releasing her and then fisted her hands in his hair and kissed him with a hunger that could not be quenched. He retaliated just as desperately, his tongue tangling with hers in a way that would have made her knees weak if she had been standing on them.
He tried to make it toward the hall down which led his bedroom, but they bumped into a wall. The feel of her body tormented him, and he pressed her more firmly against the wall as his lips hotly caressed the tops of her breasts. "Your Marks," he managed to rasp. They shimmered into appearance, and he felt his heart quiver with overwhelming emotion as he saw their fully bloomed state. How had he deserved her?
She dragged at his shirt. "Don't make me tear this!" she warned.
"Mmm, sexy." He nipped at the Mark over her heart.
Somehow she could laugh despite the dizzying high formed of desire and love. Pain had fled away entirely. The holes inside had begun to fill. "Michael, I will tear anything off you that you like, but I have a terrible disadvantage right now for reach." She could drag at the collar or back but not actually find leverage for tearing. Pity, really.
He turned and tumbled her down onto the carpeted hallway and then stripped the shirt away fiercely. She rose up to her knees to help, and some seams did give way as they mutually tugged and pulled until there was nothing between them. She tumbled him over and pinned him to the carpet, and he stared up at her with such raw emotion that she felt tears burn her eyes. No Cultivator chose an inferior mate. Leads needed a special Caretaker more than most. How had she dared deserved him?
His fingers bit into her hips as she slowly took him, and brought back memories not just of a summer lost but of several years millennia before. Of endless nights, and wonderful days. Lives lived to their most wonderful. Together always even when duty took them apart. She lowered her forehead to his and smiled. "Forever, Max," she promised huskily. "I won't accept less."
"I'm yours," he vowed just as huskily, and caught her closer for another kiss.
They came together with hunger hot enough to melt glass, again and again, until ecstasy finally replaced pain and whatever wounds remained on their souls healed as they interlocked again. Virginia could only burrow against his chest as his arms closed around her and wish to never need to move again. She could have stayed forever right there, their bodies entwined and the little echoes of delight moving through her blood.
However, as energy finally returned a bit later, she lifted her head and looked around. She sighed. "We didn't make it to a bed."
He opened one eye. "But we're not on the couch."
"Your carpet needs vacuuming."
"Picky, picky." He tumbled her off him and then rolled lithely to his feet. He lifted her up from the floor without pause and strode toward the bedroom they had previously ignored. She almost literally glowed all over her body; at the least, both her Marks glowed more than usual. She had always been empathic—Glass Cultivators often were—so love could literally fuel her. He tumbled her onto the bed and then wrapped them both in the blankets. For the first time in five years, for the first time in five millennia, he finally felt at peace. Finally felt as if things might be fixed. "Veronica." He kissed her deeply, hungrily. "I love you."
"I know." She tenderly caressed his face with her fingertips. He made as wonderful a blanket as he did a bed. "It was worth it to be here. I guess I can't regret that everything back then had to happen as it did."
He went still. "What do you mean it had to happen as it did?"
"For Shanae. To destroy Nemesis." She searched his eyes and felt pain ache in her heart. "Of course you wouldn't know," she whispered. "She never told anyone, not even Arista." His entire body tensed as if against a blow, and she held his gaze steadily. He, more than most any Commander, deserved the truth. "Shanae knew for all of her entire life that the kingdoms had to be destroyed for her to face and destroy Nemesis in a time that had forgotten him."
He buried his face against his shoulder as the pain cut at him, and she held onto him fiercely. Another gouging to his soul that had been unavoidable. He was Evan's twin soul, which meant he felt far closer to Shanae than any other. He had seen her as much as his sister as he had anything else, just as Sabin always had with Sayena. "Damn her," he said roughly.
He would hurt only more to know what had happened for her to pay the price to exist, so they could cover that later. For now, a subject change was needed. And . . . they needed a little more space than they had. "You know," she mused as she casually pushed at his shoulders, "it's pretty amazing how this will work." She sat up when he released her and stretched largely. "The Commanders that protect one prince are mated to the Cultivators that protect that prince's mate. It's like everything has a nice bow on it from Destiny."
He got up when she did and lifted a brow a bit as he followed her through the apartment. Not that he minded the back view, of course. "To be sure. It crossed my mind more than once back then. Things might get a little more interesting once the kingdoms rise anew and everyone is ruling, but, hell. If Claret could do it for millions of years, we can do it as long as needed ourselves, right?" He caught her arm in the living room and turned her around. "Virginia," he warned. "You know I always know when you're not telling me something, don't you?"
She smiled. "Of course."
Before he could retort, her foot hooked his ankle and he landed on his ass on the carpet. A shield of molten Glass appeared around him that he could luckily see through. Virginia lifted one hand to grab her Mask from her earring, and her other hand had red and gold magic moving over it. A Phantasmat materialized in midair and its claws connected with the halberd just as it finished appearing. She donned her Mask to call armor and then used her now freed hand to shove shards of glass into the Phantasmat's face.
It screamed in pain and fury and fell with a meaty thump to the ground. Glass welled up hotly around Virginia as she took a step forward, and then the magic flowed down her weapon as she shoved it into the Phantasmat's back. It exploded outward into millions of tiny specks. With utter casualness, she propped the halberd on her armored shoulder. "Let's order something to eat, and I'll explain everything," she told Michael as she removed the shield.
He felt a laugh welling up from the depths of his soul. "Never change," he told her. "And do everything in your power to give us a daughter just like you."
Not even her Mask could hide her grin. "You might regret that, but you have a deal."