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The Unseen Kingdoms - Chapter 20

Time slipped by. By the first week of November, everything had returned to normal once more. Shana had wholly recovered even physically and resumed her usual schedule. She and Edgar alike continued to have a permanent bodyguard in some form or another, but they did not mind. Siobhan and Rocky made up the bulk of bodyguard schedule since they two happened to spend the most time around the two Proteans.

On a day where neither had classes, Shana and Siobhan talked cheerfully about most everything as they walked down the lane with their arms full of flowers. They had gathered bunches of carnations as a gift to Virginia and Michael who had finally bought a home together. All new homes needed to be welcomed with flowers, and when it came to Cultivators, you especially made sure to get theirs. Red carnations had only grown on Carnation herself—just as black proteas only grew on Protea—but Shana had used her Nature power to cheat the odds.

"They needed some color at the house anyway," Siobhan giggled.

Shana grinned. "Knowing them, they'll argue over the décor for another month until Yvonne gets tired of them both, throws them out, gets it done, and then lets them back in!" She stopped quickly on a laugh as a squirrel came running up and stopped right in her path. "Well, hello to you too!" She knelt down to give it a pet. "Careful! My pet ferret likes to chase the 'lil guys who follow me home."

"Aw, Bastian won't hurt him." Siobhan knelt down to give the squirrel a pat too. She looked at Shana and then let out a little breath of relief. None of them had really known what would happen to Shana after the battle within her coma, and no one was disappointed with the results. Shana was . . . freer. Happier. She glowed in the sun with an incandescent darkness that looked stronger than ever before.

Protea had always been affectionately called the heart of the galaxy (with Delphinium as the conscience). It had always certainly seemed that way with its Rulers as well, with each High Princess being the heart of her world and all the royal houses as a whole. Shana, in particular, seemed to embody that to Siobhan. "Are you happy, Shana?" she asked softly.

Shana looked at her in surprise and then she shifted her flowers to one arm and held her other hand out to her sister. Their fingers linked as sparks flew briefly, and she smiled. "Yeah, I am. Very happy. You don't need to worry about me, Siobhan. He can't touch me any longer."

"I know. I just want to be sure. I would worry so much less about you if you would just cry more often like I do."

"I think I ran out of tears recently. You'll have to wait for me to build them up again."

"Okay, I guess. But I'll be the shoulder for you that time, alright?" She pressed her cheek to Shana's. "I am almost as much the Light for your soul as Rocky is, just as you are almost as much the Dark for mine as Edgar." She really wanted to be the one to help Shana through the stress and needles of the fight against Mania, but she also knew she may be helpless there because she just did not know. That sort of healing needed someone who had been there to understand the pain. "Thank you, by the way."

Shana blinked at her. "For what?"

"For not missing my birthday last month! I would have hated to celebrate being an adult without you there. I mean, okay, you were only just out of the hospital, but you were there. I would have been very mad if you had missed it."

It made Shana laugh. "You're welcome. I think. Rocky said much the same thing the other day about missing his birthday this month. I have two days until that. I think we're good."

"You're just so irreplaceable!" Siobhan gave her a smacking kiss on the cheek.

"That's a pretty picture," a woman's voice said behind them, surprising them. "I still don't know what it is about Protea and Delphinium that makes them compatible in so many ways, but I suppose it's best for the universe as a whole that they are!"

Shana and Siobhan blinked at one another and then slowly turned their heads to see two women standing behind them. The newcomers looked almost perfectly identical to Shana and Siobhan in every way, with only less than two decades' worth of maturing to separate them. The sisters would catch up soon enough.

The flowers were forgotten on the ground as the Apexes stood sharply and stared in disbelief at their ancestors. Shana, as was her way, recovered first and just sighed heavily. "Since you're here, I guess things finally hit critical, huh?"

"Shana," Siobhan muttered, "I'd take it as a personal favor if you would TELL me when you had premonitions! How long did you know they would be showing up eventually?"


"Shan-na!" she half wailed as she put her face in her hands. "I'm going to kill you myself."

* * * * *

Rocky leaned on the corral fence and tracked his brother's flight through the air, only to wince when he landed with something of a thud on the ground. Not a painful thud—the ground had softened at the Protea Prince's approach—but a thud regardless. Despite the fact that working at the ranch was technically a cover until the takeover, they did still work hard.

The work could all too often be a bit painful, too. A new horse had arrived that was so fractious she could not be approached by just anyone. Rocky had managed to tame her into accepting a saddle and bridle, but she had bucked him off her back as soon as he tried to get into said saddle. Edgar had taken over at that point since those with the Nature Flower Element were far better with animals of all sorts, and he was also smaller than his brother-in-law by quite a bit. His record for staying in the saddle had reached five minutes—still four minutes and fifty seconds better than Rocky.

He got back to his feet and dusted off his clothes. "Alright," he sighed ruefully, "I think it's time to call in the big guns. We need Shana. I really do have the stronger flora gift of us two, and she has the stronger fauna one."

"I'm still not convinced the Dark Flower Element isn't aiding in that." Rocky leapt agilely over the fence and shook his head ruefully as the mare trotted away. "I'm half tempted to send her back where she came from."

"It would be a waste of a prime horse," a male voice said behind them dryly. "And since when have you ever given up on anything, kid? I thought you were more like me than your mother, Robert."

Rocky and Edgar froze as they stared at each other and then both slowly turned to see two men standing behind them. Edgar could not find a single word to say, shocked to the depths of his soul. Rocky was more surprised than shocked, yet a bit resigned as well. He had suspected Shanta's appearance might not be a prologue to a new war.

* * * * *

Anyone who knew Virginia and Michael knew that their arguing was really just another way they showed their love. There was no happy middle ground for them: they were either making war or making love. Their personalities were enough alike that they just couldn't co-exist peacefully for long periods of time, and they rarely ever agreed on anything.

The one pointed exception, to their friends' shock, had been the addition of a mural on one of the blank walls of their bedroom. Not necessarily that they would have it, considering Virginia's art skill, but what it would be. They had also somewhat miraculously agreed that he would paint the rest of the walls and ceiling while she did the mural, thus divvying the work perhaps not equally, but enough to keep them both happy.

It was why on that afternoon they both wore paint-splattered clothes and worked in harmony in the same room. Michael had been putting down the last layer of primer on the other three walls while Virginia shifted from drawing her mural to painting. Michael glanced over at her, studied her messy pants and oversized shirt, and then snorted softly. "You don't look like a model of anything except maybe a paint store."

"I'll have you know I make this look good. And that there's a photo floating around that Shana took of me where I'm wearing nothing except paint." She grinned when her fiancé stared at her. "No joke." She swung around back to her work and added, "Keep getting that mess on you and you'll probably get her attention, too."

"Yeah, no. I don't get naked for anyone but you." He swiped at a bit of paint on his face and only smeared it.

"Bet you change your mind. She has weapons."

That he believed! And he had complete confidence in Shana's skill, as well as her ability to ensure her subjects felt comfortable. He mostly just felt like protesting because it would entertain those he loved; he had every intention of giving in when Shana inevitably actually asked. He swiped again at the paint and scowled when it did not come off. "This stuff is messier than I realized."

"Mmm, to be expected." She added a bit of pink to the black protea she had been painting. "You got oil-based primer. That stuff can't come off with just water. It needs a special thinner." She hid a smile at the utter silence that statement brought. "I tried to tell you what to get but, man, what do I know about wall paint? I'm just an artist." She hastily dodged on a laugh as he took a swipe for her. "Sorry, but I thought you deserved to reap the rewards of your folly."

He looked at her for a long moment and then calmly went to grab his paintbrush. "Of course you know," he said, "this now means war."

She darted for the door but his longer legs allowed him to catch her before she escaped and he swung her around off her feet. He pinned her against the last unpainted wall where he used his larger frame to hold her despite her attempts to get free. A wicked grin canted his lips as he pointedly smeared matching paint over her cheeks and forehead. "All is fair, Veronica!"

"I know, I know." She could barely catch a breath from laughing. "I just couldn't resist ruffling your feathers!" She lifted a hand to her cheek to try to remove the worst of the paint, and his fingers tenderly brushed hers. She looked up into his eyes and felt her heart leap at the emotion in his silver gaze. Her eyes softened. "Mike."

Even like this, he thought. Even like this with her hair haphazardly pulled back, in grungy clothes with paint on her face, she was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. "Do you have any idea how much I love you?" he asked roughly.

"Yes." She smiled and framed his face in her hands. "I think I do." She tugged his head down, intending on kissing him, when she sensed the distinctive presence of another Cultivator—and not one of their friends. Reflex kicked in. She tried to shove him aside and step in front of him protectively.

He had the same reflexes and instincts. He had also tried to shove her back to safely, so they really only ended up shoving each other aside where they exchanged a heated glare.

"Wow," the woman in the doorway said solemnly. "So this is what happens when a Lead Defender is paired with another leader type. I think Sabin should be glad he's with Claret and not you!"

Virginia's head jerked back around, and her knees went weak. She would have fallen if Michael hadn't grabbed her quickly. "My god," she whispered as she stared at the familiar red-haired and gold-eyed woman who looked so much like herself, including their ivory skin. "It can't be!"

"Wanna bet, Nica?"

* * * * *

"Have you noticed how utterly empty the house seems?" Diaz asked Alexandria dryly as they sat together in the garage and pulled apart a small engine they had decided to tune up together at home. They had opted to keep the house Alexandria had been previously living in with the other three Dark Defenders who had since moved out into their own places with their fiancés. Diaz had lived with the four in the brief time before the other three had moved out, so the absolute quiet got to him as much as it did Alexandria. It felt a tiny bit like a case of empty nest syndrome.

"If we need noise," Alexandria countered dryly, "we can go over to Shana or Siobhan's homes."

"It wasn't a complaint, Lexie." Diaz grinned at her over the top of the engine. "It was just a comment that you are more extroverted than you pretend to be. You complain sooo much about the big gatherings or being dragged out, but you get surprisingly refreshed from it."

She shifted a bit as a hint of red climbed her neck. "Maybe a little. I think it depends on who is at the gathering or doing the dragging. I'm sort of almost a half and half extrovert and introvert, really."

Diaz laughed. "Makes me wonder what we'll end up with in our daughter someday. I mean, me being definitely an extrovert and you being half means she should lean that way, but I honestly hope we end up with a normal cranky, can't-be-contained, does-what-she-damned-well-wants Hyacinth Ruler."

She snorted at him. "If we do, then you can keep her line. You've done well enough with me."

"And it's a miracle anyone has," came a very dry voice from the garage entry. "Every single gray hair I had came from you, Arista Hyacinth!" The woman added after a pause, "Though I guess the Hyacinth Defender before me said the same thing about me, so . . . maybe it's just tradition for our world."

Alexandria and Diaz stared at one another and then both got to their feet and slowly turned around. They stared in growing disbelief at the woman standing in their garage entry. She could have easily passed for Alexandria's sister or mother despite being much shorter for they still shared the same blue hair, cloudy white eyes, and fair skin covered with freckles.

"By the gods," Alexandria said softly. "What are you doing here?" She groaned and covered her face with a hand as it dawned. "I knew there was something Shana wasn't telling me!"

Cheerfully, the woman said, "Revenge is sweet. It's about time someone ran you ragged."

* * * * *

The construction had been completed on the shop space beside Justin's, and so Sherry had moved in at last. The two shops actually opened into one another and felt almost like one giant shop, though it held clear zones for sewing and the rest. The couple had also recently bought a home together that was close enough to walk to work, so they spent half the time reorganizing the shop and decorating their home. Luckily they could share the same style in both, and even luckier, they agreed on most things.

And when they didn't, Sherry thought as she swept the front step of the shop, they just mutually yelled until they reached an accord.

"What're you smiling over?" Justin asked behind her as his hands settled lightly on her shoulders.

"You." She lifted one hand to cover his and tilted her head back to smile at him. "Still trying to decide if this is a dream come true." She returned her gaze to her work and added softer, "And, I wanted to apologize. For those bad energies. I didn't realize I had been lugging them around with me, let alone into our new home."

People with mental powers not dependent on majik or magic—such as Telepathy, Empathy, or Telekinesis—could very easily start accumulating mental or emotional baggage in the form of bad energies since many of the things they could do were effectively invisible on the physical plane but very tangible on the Ephemeral one. People with Sight or Sensing got it even worse, and it got worse still if the owner actually did have majik or magic. The stronger the connection to the Plane, the more backlash you could get. Hence why all witches worked exceptionally hard to only put out positive energy; they knew all too well they would get the kickback in exponential ways.

Bad energies may have been built on the Plane but they came back to the physical one in all manner of unpleasant ways by inducing ailments often related to whatever had created them. Sleeplessness, exhaustion, headaches, and even illness topped the list most of the time. And as much as it took someone sensitive to make the energy, it often ended up being someone sensitive who suffered most in encountering it.

Justin had minor magic as well as Sensing and very mild Sight he had inherited from Sherry. She personally had not just Future Sight but also Ghost Sight—meaning she could see and communicate with the spirits of the dead that did not pass to the Realm—as well as more than enough magic to spare thanks to being a Dual Cultivator. She had unintentionally been building up some bad energy from the things she had suffered over the last couple years, and she had more unintentionally brought them home where Justin had gotten slapped with them and nearly knocked flat for a week with relentless headaches.

Once they had figured the cause, Sherry had acted fast to remove the problem. She had done a clean sweep of the house to banish any bad energy, and she had then gone briefly to her recovering home world of Aster to find bits of the agate that only Aster could produce. The stones had gone to Jean to be purified, and then they had been installed at the house. The headaches had evaporated, and bad energy had been replaced by good when Justin had playfully jumped with Sherry over a broom to enter the house for the first time after the last cleansing.

Justin lightly cupped her cheek and smiled. "Hey. I'm a Caretaker for a Dual Cultivator with Sight. I have to expect she's going to have baggage. And you moved fast to remove it anyway. I don't have any regrets. I got you to baby me for a week, didn't I?"

She smiled and started to lean up to kiss him when a flash of orange color caught her eye. She turned her head and watched as a woman with hip-length orange hair stopped in front of the steps. Sherry stopped breathing as she saw someone painfully familiar, who could have easily passed for her sister or mother. She released Justin and took a hesitant step toward the woman. "You're real . . . aren't you?" she whispered. She reached out and touched the woman's arm, and she felt the warmth of her light brown skin under her fingers.

The woman covered her fingers with one of her own hands and smiled softly. "Very real."

* * * * *

"Here, taste this," Juliet ordered. She did not actually give Nathaniel a chance to decline the offer, though, since she effectively shoved the referenced cracker and spread right into his mouth. His eyes almost rolled with delight, and she grinned smugly as she put a plate with more crackers and spread beside him. "You said you were craving some of the autumn vegetables from Vericity, so I swung by Jean's place to see if she had any. I came back with a boxful and decided to experiment."

Nathaniel looked longingly at the snack in front of him and then caught her hand and brought it to his lips for a large smacking kiss. "My savior, my light, my dream, my . . ."

"I get it," she laughed as she tugged her hand free. "You're welcome." She stepped back over to the counter where she had been working and then stopped for a moment to turn and watch him as he happily ate the crackers she had given him. He worked from home mostly—though he and Clara did have an office space they used now and then—so when Juliet had a day off from the ranch, he made sure to work in the kitchen to be around for taste-testing of her experiments.

It always warmed her through to her soul to see him eat her cooking and love it so much. An old joke once said that those of Gladiolus had recipes inside them instead of genes, but it really did seem to be true. Those of Gladiolus just really loved to nurture and care, and they had long before decided that the best way to give love was to feed people! It really showed up in Cultivators, but even the regular people of the world had shown that trait.

Juliet felt that giving her friends food was not unlike giving them love, especially those who just lacked any skill at feeding themselves—Yvonne being the most infamous due to her lack of any culinary skill. Someone had to take care of them! Juliet worked at the Springwood Ranch to feed hungry patrons, too, and she was happy enough, but she didn't get as much control over the menu as she wanted.

Her friends had been pushing since before graduation for her to just open her own place, and Nathaniel had recently started pushing as well. She felt leery of getting a loan from Chivanti Corporation and failing, but when she had expressed that, a different Chivanti entirely had nipped it right in the bud: Edgar would invest in her, and so would Shana, and Nathaniel had backed them both up. Their clear belief in getting a sizable return in that investment had helped bolster her bravery. Could she turn her passion in a career where she was in charge?

"You're thinking too hard," Nathaniel murmured. He made a note on the pad of paper next to him. "It's like static when you do that." He set his pen down and turned around to smile at her. "Juli, I think you'll be brilliant at anything you do, and I can think of a few famous names that would gladly help promote you. We believe in you. I believe in you."

Her eyes glittering with tears, she walked over to him and sat down on his lap to curl close. He wrapped his arms around her with a smile and then reached for another cracker. The gesture caused her to laugh, and she leaned back to look at his face. "Do you really think I can do it?"

"Absolutely." The utter conviction in his voice made tears fill her eyes again, and he smiled as he leaned in to kiss her softly. His lover was incredibly strong physically yet had a very vulnerable heart that he desperately needed to shelter. "Yvonne has already hinted that she would like to design your restaurant as part of her portfolio," he nudged.

She took a deep breath and decided to grab at her dreams with both hands. "Let's do it. Oh god," she added, pressing a hand to her stomach. "Now I'm scared."

"That's something I never thought I'd hear her admit," a woman said dryly from the kitchen doorway. "You're definitely good for her, Navidan."

Juliet shot to her feet and both she and her lover whirled to stare at the woman standing in the doorway with a whimsical smile. She was a lovely woman with short yellow hair, green eyes, and olive skin, and she could have passed for related to Juliet. Her smiled alone looked so familiar that it broke Juliet's heart. "Mandy." Her voice choked on the name.

"I don't suppose you have a guest room, do you?"

* * * * *

Kellie slowly closed her front door and leaned her forehead against it. Her entire body trembled. It hurt. It hurt a lot. She had no idea how she had kept it hidden where those greedy, sadistic bastards wouldn't see it and use it against her.

Tyson's arms slid around her waist, and she turned to burrow into his shoulder. It took all of his willpower to stay and comfort when he wanted to go remove the threat entirely. He hadn't wanted her to answer the door at all, and at least he now knew why. "Your cousins?" he asked softly.

"Yes. What else is new?" she asked a little bitterly. "They come around every year, right as rain on Gladiolus, to emphasize how I should be supporting the entire family since I inherited such a large fortune from my mother's passing when I was eighteen. They don't want to work or earn their way. They're fine with a government stipend, but I could give them so much more so they could live a better life." Her eyes glittered powerfully. "They will never touch my mother's money."

The late elder Yu had been an accomplished doctor within her own right who had worked with trauma patients of all kinds before becoming more interested in the science of medicine and trying to find cures for things that had previously been uncurable with or without magic. She had succeeded on one critical thing, and the world governments had paid her a hefty reward for her service. She had continued to work while that money stayed safely stored for Kellie—and only a handful of years later, she herself had died in a lab accident. Kellie had lived the rest of her non-adult life under the guardianship of Desiree's mothers.

Almost from the day Kellie's mother had died, her mother's brother and his two children had been pestering Kellie to support them. She had been rejecting them for years—where had they been to support her in losing her mother?—and recently they had ramped up their efforts. That was fine. She had access to two rather brilliant legal advisors who had helped her ramp up her own efforts to protect herself as well as her mother's legacy.

"Forget them," Tyson urged her.

"I wish I could, but it's not that easy." She dried her eyes with his sleeve and then smiled ruefully. "Until I marry, they're always going to be hovering close, hoping something happens to me because they're technically my next of kin. It won't do them good actually, but they won't know that until too late."

"Why wouldn't it?" he asked with a lifted brow.

"Other than the obvious fact that I can't die until I produce an heir for Daffodil—which won't happen until LONG after they themselves are gone—I decided to take some more blasé and civilian precautions as well. I had Nate and Clara draw me up a will. In the event of my death before marriage, everything goes to you and Shana. If you and I are married, it all goes to you. If we're both gone, it all goes to Shana. And if all of us are gone? It goes right into charity."

He contemplated all of that. Finally, "Want to elope now?"

"To save my mother's money or just because?" she countered dryly.

"Because I'm willing to take any excuse to finally have you be mine once more," he admitted candidly. "I miss the satisfaction of being able to call you my wife and hear you call me your husband, my daffodil."

Her heart softened and so did her eyes at the use of the nickname. "As terribly tempting as that is, I am still a Ruler Cultivator and the queen of Daffodil. We have a tradition and a ceremony to uphold, you know that. And I don't want to be the first of our generation," she laughed, "because that's always the biggest deal! We'll leave that to our High Rulers." She nibbled on his lip. "I promise that for waiting we'll get a long wedding trip. Or we could start one now if you like."

He almost grabbed her before a knock on the door interrupted things. He shot the slab of a wood a fierce glower. "And I was about to have the best day off ever." Leaving her giggling helplessly, he stepped over to the door and opened it. "What!" No sooner did the word leave his mouth than his jaw dropped as he recognized the visitor.

The tall woman with familiar peach hair lifted a brow at him, and her copper eyes sparkled cheerfully against her brown skin. "Am I interrupting?" she asked politely. She looked around his shoulder to where Kellie was also staring at her in shock. "Call off your Caretaker, Kacey. He looks like he might bite."

Kellie could barely manage to speak or breathe. "Uhm, Tyson?"

He stepped back with a rueful smile. "Well, this ought to be interesting."

* * * * *

"You ratted me out," Uwe complained as he stepped into his fiancée's office doorway at the theatrical studio. "You completely sold me out. The minute Shana heard I had a tattoo of a native fish from Orchid on my butt, she demanded a photo."

Desiree did not look up from the makeup brushes she had been cleaning, but she did smile. "Oh, really! As if she would not have found out eventually. I would like to note, however, that I had already warned you she would be after you, and that she's adding all of us to her figure study collection. When I said 'all', I really did mean all. Three guesses who was first, and you won't be right on any of them."

He propped a hip on her desk with a smile. "Gin." A shake of the head. "Hmm. Rocky? Goddess knows he's never had modesty. Though he might have distracted the photographer more than a bit."

She grinned. "You can definitely tell they're a couple because of the sheer detail and emotion in the frame, but, no, he wasn't first either."

"Damn." He thought for a moment. "If you tell me it was Yvonne . . ."

"Not her either! I told you that you'd never guess." She leaned up to kiss his chin and then put her brushes away. "What brought you by? I thought you were teaching lessons this afternoon. Did you come by just to try to harangue me?"

The use of the word 'try' made him smile anew. "Lesson got canceled, and I felt like seeing if you wanted to walk home together." He slid his arms around her waist as she moved closer. "I saw this painting Virginia did of some fantastical creature that was half fish and half woman. A woman's torso with a beautiful tail fin instead of legs. The woman looked strangely familiar. I just think that perhaps if I'm going to be stuck in a photo, that maybe we should have you in it too. I can be the swimmer rescued by the beautiful mermaid." He lightly kissed her until she melted against his chest. "You could wear aquamarines from Orchid and just your hair." He kissed her again. "I'm growing fond of this idea."

"Oh, break it up!" came a dry, and familiar, voice from the doorway. "I still wonder how you two didn't just evaporate the waters off Orchid with your relationship."

Desiree and Uwe stared at one another and then slowly looked at the doorway to find a painfully familiar woman with eyes as purple as Desiree's, hair just as ultramarine, and skin the same nearly shimmery light brown. Even they, the two who normally flowed with everything that came their way, could only feel shock. "What . . . how are you here?" Desiree managed to ask.

The woman smiled. "A trip only slightly less annoying than a boat to Vericity. Mind if I stay with you two? The local hotel doesn't have a pool."

* * * * *

"Remind me again why I'm making lunch?" Doug asked his lover as he drained water from a pot of noodles. He and Yvonne were working together in the kitchen of the house belonging to her parents. Her mother would be home soon from the cafeteria she worked in at the hospital, and had said she would be bringing over a medical intern she had met that reminded her of Yvonne.

Yvonne had suggested that Doug come over and make lunch so that he could make a good impression on her mother. Lily Kingfisher had always been a little overprotective of her only child, so having Yvonne announce she was moving in with not just a boyfriend but a fiancé without ever revealing she had been seeing someone to begin with had made Lily alarmed. Her husband, though . . . nothing much bothered him. Harvey Kingfisher had just rolled with the punches and welcomed Doug to the family.

Since Yvonne very much loved her parents, she really wanted them to love Doug. Showing off his domestic side would be a nice start since Yvonne lacked much of any ability to cook anything, no matter how patiently Juliet kept trying to teach her; she had thus far survived on pre-made things. Proving Doug was actually quite the chef would assure her mother that she wouldn't starve. "Because you look cute in the apron?" she offered only without looking up from the salad she had been entrusted to make.

Doug laughed and caught her around the waist in a hug, and her cheeks warmed as she leaned back against him. She still felt new to any sort of teasing, though she was picking it up quickly. All she had to do was remind herself of how they had been in the Royal Era, and it became much easier. She loved the way she felt around him, and the ways he had coaxed her out of her protective Ice shell. He couldn't quiet her anxiety when it arrived, but he could give it less reasons to try.

She turned to snuggle closer and rested a hand over his heart on a contented sigh. He pressed a kiss to the top of her hair, and his hands shifted as if to pull her closer, but his fingers suddenly moved and zeroed in on a spot he knew for fact was ticklish. She gave a yelp of laughter and tried to get away to no avail. He was both bigger and stronger. And merciless. He tickled her until she was breathless and crying and the joy on her face made his heart ache with feelings he could not voice even as a Shaman.

Lily Kingfisher could only stand in the doorway beside the intern and stare in shock at the sight of her introverted daughter playing with the man holding her. The emotions in his eyes as he looked at Yvonne made Lily's heart ache. In that moment, she accepted him; he made Yvonne happy, and that was all Lily had ever wanted.

They noticed her at the same time, and Yvonne turned bright red as she realized her mother was lifting a brow. "We were, ah, making lunch."

"That's going to be some lunch," the woman with Lily said on a laugh.

Yvonne and Doug alike hadn't initially noticed her, and they focused on her directly at her voice. Both went very, very still. She wasn't very big, maybe five feet tall, and her purple ombre hair framed pixie-like features. She wore a backwards cap and overalls with a faded shirt underneath. She could have passed for a not-yet adult, if it hadn't been for the utter age inside her golden yellow eyes. She bore more than a passing resemblance to Yvonne herself, with identical coloring all the way down to their fair skin, almost as if something deeper than blood connected them.

Lily looked between them with a lifted brow. "That is . . . eerier than I expected it to be." She studied her daughter's face. "Have you two met before?"

"Yes," Yvonne managed to say as she held tight to Doug's hand. "A long, long time ago, in what almost feels like another life." She looked up at Doug. "I think . . . we need to call the others. Don't you?"

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