"Do you have any idea how adorable you two looked?"
"Shut up, Shana." Jean jerked a black hat on her head. She also wore black denims and a black tank top, and she had a black sweater to throw on as well. The dark clothing was mandatory for tech crew. Her dragon pendant rested like a slice of silver over the swell of her breasts, and Byron's eyes kept drifting wistfully that direction.
Shana grinned a bit. She had been the one to open the bedroom door to find the two would-be lovers sleeping in each other's arms, and she was also the only one with the nerve to risk Jean's temper by commenting on it. The others felt too grateful that Jean had slept at all, and Shana was too, but she also found nothing sacred. "Really, I don't know what you're sussed about."
Leslie looked at Jean with wide and innocent eyes. "What's wrong with cuddling Byron while you sleep? Are there different types of cuddling?"
Half the room was sure she already knew the answer, and the other half was suspicious. That didn't stop Rocky from smirking at Jean and saying, "Go ahead, Auntie Jean. Explain it. Saves us the effort in the future."
Jean covered Leslie's eyes with one hand and then made an exceptionally rude gesture in Vericity with her other hand. Her prince just laughed at her. Ignoring him as well as the others who kept grinning, Jean grabbed the knob of her front door. "Just lay off! All we did was sleep!" She jerked the door open and found herself face-to-face with Alan. "Er, hi."
Alan blinked. He always managed to walk into the damnedest parts of conversations around Jean. "You slept with someone? No wonder you look more rested."
"Damn it, Alan! It was just sleep! And it's a long story."
He snorted. "Considering the presence of Cultivators, I imagine so." He fell back so they could all file out. "Half of you can ride with me, the other half with Jean." He eyed Chance. The taller male didn't really look comforting or approachable, and he hovered near the child and Rocky visibly. "What is he? Your bodyguard service?"
Shana grinned. "Roughly that, yes."
They split up with Doug, Yvonne, Jessie, and Leslie going with Alan. Shana, Rocky, Chance, and Byron went with Jean. The priestess' driving skills showed above excellence again as she avoided anything that might possibly make Shana uneasy, despite Vericity's distressingly confusing layout of streets and paths. She finally swung into the carriage lot of the studio and parked under a tree. "Frank was fine with you observing, but remember to be on your best behavior. Goddess on high, don't distract him!" she added as she got out of her carriage.
Alan, parked beside her, heard the last comment and grimaced. "He's a great director, but he has the attention span of a three-year-old. 'Well, the blocking says . . . ooh let me tell you a story!'"
It took only the first thirty minutes of rehearsal for the Cultivators to realize the witches were right: Frank Lambert was a brilliant director who did indeed get distracted very easily. One actress described him as being like an actor with an attention deficit, and another was happy to note that was why everyone loved to have Jean as their stage manager. Even Leslie with her limited language skills could see why.
Jean remained a calm center in the middle of a hurricane. She wore a headset connected to her PPS to communicate with her crew hands free—of which Alan and her younger brother were a part—and she had a seemingly endless memory as she kept track of costume changes, problems, and adjustments. She could give line prompts without a script and called light cues without being in the booth that overlooked the stage. She was also very adept at handling her director.
"Say, did Jean ever tell you about," Frank began as he stopped near Shana and Rocky.
"Yes, I did. Frank, look at the blocking." Jean shoved a clipboard into his hands. "There's not enough time for Chevon to change costume before her next scene. You need to lengthen the scene between Lisa and Jake. They take the dialogue a bit fast in a few places. We could slow them down and ensure Chevon isn't coming on stage without her pants."
"Thank you!" came a mutter from a tall woman with slate colored hair.
Frank looked at the clipboard. "Point. Lisabelle!" he called as he headed toward the actress. "Jake, you too!" The man in question stood near Lisabelle with a large cup of coffee. It was, Shana had noticed, the official stage theatrical drink. Nearly everyone had a cup either in hand or close by.
"Jean!" came a shout from a woman not much taller than Jessie. She was the costumer for the show, and she had a plethora of tape measures and pins stuck all over her vest. "Need a hand here!"
"I'm not conjuring you more pants!" Jean retorted as she headed over.
"They were comfy pants at least!" Jake called.
"Shut up, Jake!"
Byron had started laughing, and the others looked him a bit warily. "I can't explain," he managed. "And if you think this is terrible, be glad you were never in the studio of one of my film theatricals! This feels both familiar and yet much more entertaining. Maybe I will develop a fondness for stage theatricals after all."
"Not that you have incentive for such a thing," Yvonne murmured.
Jean walked up at that moment and quirked a brow at the look on Byron's face. It hit somewhere between amused and potentially dangerous. "I think I missed something." Before anyone could answer, there came a loud yelp followed by a thud from backstage. She lifted her other brow. "Problem?" she asked into her headset.
"I'm okay!" her brother answered hastily.
"That didn't answer the question," she muttered as she turned and stalked in that direction. "If I have to heal anything, expect me to poke it first to remind you not to do it again!"
"She scares us," the actress named Chevon said as she stopped beside the Cultivators. She stood only a few inches shorter than Shana, and she had lively features that landed somewhere between masculine and feminine. "Jean, I mean. In a good way, though. She's our resident stage-queen, and we need that. Also, you know, we've seen her lose her temper once. We've been very careful it never happen again."
"Why?" Doug asked curiously.
"She got quiet."
Everyone winced. Jean was naturally loud and boisterous in everything she did. If you pushed her to a point of temper where she got quiet, you would be best to find a bunker and pray.
Byron's eyes drifted to where Jean was gracefully climbing the ladder into the light booth. He could just see her over the top of the backdrop. She had a way of moving that always captivated him. He couldn't breathe for wanting her. Needing her. Loving her was a roller coaster of a million emotions. Somehow she made his world perfect.
Chevon studied him and the look in his eyes, and then said calmly, "If you hurt her, I will break your arms and legs, and I don't heal what I break." Her green eyes glittered warningly with a familiar promise of majik. "Clear?"
"Clear," he agreed.
She nodded and then studied him a second time. "You know, you look like . . ."
"That's what everyone says," he said easily.
A smile entered her eyes. "Only Jean," she said fondly. She wandered off to push apart two actors fighting over the last cup of coffee, and she solved the problem by taking it herself and walking off with it.
"It's crazy!" Leslie announced.
"It is indeed," Chance muttered.
Lisabelle's sudden scream pierced the air, and Byron felt a powerful stabbing sensation through his soul. He shot to his feet before thinking about it, and that made his friends hastily stand as well. Somewhere over the rising din, they could hear Lisabelle shout, "Jean! Get up! Please!"
The color left Byron's face as he rushed across the studio and ducked backstage. Jean had collapsed at the bottom of the ladder. He fell to his knees beside her and pressed a hand to her neck. Her pulse felt far too slow to be safe. "Did she fall or just faint?" he demanded of Lisabelle.
"Fainted." Lisabelle touched her friend's face with trembling fingers. "I knew she was under attack, but . . ."
"Not quite an attack," came an unfamiliar female voice. "But she is now!" A flash of light flared and identical twins appeared in the middle of the stage. They wore the familiar uniform of the Dragonsbane minions, and their birthmarks and pupils could be clearly seen. The slightly taller gave a quick bow. "I am Siana."
"And I am Sicily," her sister said. "We need that witch."
"Over my dead body!" Byron snarled.
"Everyone hide!" Shana snapped at the actors and crew still standing around. "Get to the back of the studio! Now!"
The whip of royal command in her voice made everyone respond, and they all went scrambling across the stage and studio to hide at the back behind the last row of chairs. The only three who didn't flee were Alan, Lisabelle, and Chevon. The latter instead lobbed a blast of raw gold majik that the twins had to hastily dodge. The blast sheared into shreds the curtain that was the partition between stage and backstage, and it dropped to the ground. "You won't touch her!" she snarled.
"Gah! They're everywhere!" Siana winced. "And I didn't know they could throw attacks!"
"Obviously you're failing as dragons if you don't know that," Alan retorted. "Only the strongest of us can do it, and it's basically concentrating our majik into raw energy. And sorry for you, but all of us have that skill!"
Siana hastily dropped a gem onto the ground where it shattered to release a Draconid. The monster rose up to its full height, and its rock-covered exterior implied it would not be so easily destroyed. "Let's see how you handle this, little witches!"
All three pulled wooden wands out of thin air in response. Chevon held a spruce wand tipped with apatite; Alan had juniper wood with ametrine; and Lisabelle had yew with citrine. Unlike normal humans, they had every chance of being capable of holding the line in aid to the Defenders. Unfortunately, they could not do much more than that. Quietly, Shana told Rocky, "I don't think we have much of a choice here. Doug and you will stay back with Chance to be out of things. Leslie can join us, but you three need to be watching her."
Masks were removed from bracelets, or in the case of Shana and Byron a necklace, and then donned to call armor. The dropped curtain made no secret of the action, yet more than one actor did not really feel all that surprised. "Awesome!" a familiar male voice said somewhere near the back of the studio.
"Shut up, Jake!" a female muttered in turn.
The twins looked visibly dismayed. "Well, damn it," the older of the two said. "Get them first!" she ordered the monster. "Distract them while we get what we came for!"
The monster proved stronger than anyone had anticipated. The three witches could barely make any impact at all, and the Defenders found it hard to keep from being knocked down for more than a few moments at time.
Shana shifted to playing decoy and kept the Draconid permanently engaged while the others tried to come in from the sides, yet that only slowly chipped away at the monster's defenses. She knew the signs of what she looked at: the Draconid had been built with a very specific weakness they needed to exploit, and it would just fall apart. She could also just use a high-octane Dark blast, but she felt highly wary of that under the circumstances. She could not be sure how much damage she might do to others or the studio itself. If they had been outside, she would not have hesitated. The irony of infinite, unmatched, power: that very strength became its own limitation.
A particularly large blast of evil magic sent everyone flying, and the twins made a rush for Jean. They stopped short as Byron stepped into their path with a javelin in hand. He had deliberately been staying back just in case, and his eyes narrowed visibly behind his Mask. "You will not touch my Caretaker!" he snarled.
"I—wait." Siana stared at him. "You're not from Blossom Field." She counted quickly. "You can't be. They have ten Defenders. Ten and half, okay maybe, with that Deactivated one. You're Glass, too, so that's odd." She gave a gusty sigh. "Irrelevant I guess!" She held up a hand and light flared around her fingers. "Sorry that you decided to get involved. We're taking that witch anyway. Bye now!"
"I am not," came Jean's faint voice, "a damned victim in need of rescue!" She sat up as her hands glowed with brilliant silver light. The power blasted from her fingers through the air, and it burned so hotly that Byron felt it scald his skin through his armor in mere passing.
The blast grabbed both twins, knocked them across the stage and then off it, and then it expanded into a starburst of lethal projectiles that struck the monster and blew it apart into millions of pieces. "Holy icy hells," Jessie managed to whisper. "I guess it was weak to raw majik power?"
"Th-that might be it," Yvonne agreed shakily. Her wide eyes met Shana's through their Masks. "What will happen with the third?"
Shana smiled wryly. She had already been curious about Jean's descendant, and now that she was sure that Byron's personality and lineage would be added, she genuinely had no idea what to expect. It was beyond unprecedented. Just what would happen when a witch and a Cultivator had a child? "I have no. Damned. Clue."
Byron turned sharply as Jean got to her feet and then grabbed her shoulders to give her a quick shake. "Are you nuts?" he shouted. "You wasted precious lifeforce after being drained for a week! You could have hurt yourself!"
"I'm not going to sit on my thumb like the love interest in a theatrical, and stop shaking me you flower brained jerk!" Her ire had more than one source, and she would be damned if she admitted one of them was the realization that she found him more than a little bit attractive in his armor and Mask. Hearing him so fiercely defend her had been both warming and sexy, and that just was not fair. She had the most ridiculous urge to kiss him until the world ended. His Mask did not cover the bottom half of his face, so it wasn't like she couldn't reach.
Almost as if he had read her mind, he fisted his hands into her hair and dragged her onto her toes for a kiss that walked the edge of self-combustion. He wouldn't recover from this scare for years.
"Holy hell," someone at the back of the theater whispered. "Byron Rancul is kissing Jean!"
"Uh, more importantly, Jean is very kissing him back!"
"Jake, shut up!"
Alan coughed repeatedly and tried desperately not to laugh. Chevon grinned. Lisabelle snorted and said, "Well, of course she would be that contrary. Can't settle for an ordinary guy, nope. Just have to pick one that is a Defender Cultivator. Ah well." She shook her head and then looked at Shana. "You okay with everyone knowing who you are?"
Shana shrugged on a smile. "As long as no one tells." She saw heads moving enthusiastically and had to laugh. "Good to know!" It wasn't as if they would risk angering Jean by blabbing, and even if someone did, Clara could nip it neatly in the bud. Shana glanced at the couple and then coughed. "Byron."
He slowly released Jean and glowered at Shana. "Thanks a lot."
Lisabelle grinned at Jean and the dazed look on her face. "Not bad, friend. I've never seen her quite look like that."
Jean, still trying to figure out what Byron had done to her brain, fired off a rude gesture at her friend. It was all she could manage.
The twins cautiously got to their feet and warily edged back as the team began to move toward them. Jean did not have a Seed, but she was perhaps too powerful within her own right. They needed to find a nice compromise between no power and too much power lest they get killed.
As the enemy disappeared, Shana released her claymore back to where it belonged. "Byron?" she asked.
"The answer is yes."
"I thought as much."
The rehearsal had been all but completely ruined, so Frank called it for the rest of the day. They would just start earlier the next day to make up for it. Jean still felt more than a little exhausted, but at the least, she knew she could finally sleep without any sort of magical boost. Her friends seemed determined to spend at least one more evening just in case, and she did not mind—though she definitely felt wary of being alone with Byron. She trusted him, sure, but she did not trust herself.
As she was standing on her balcony to watch the sunset, she heard the door behind her open. "Hey, you." She didn't glance over as Leslie came up beside her at the railing. The other girl could look over the top without any trouble. "Do you need me, honey?"
"No. Not really." Leslie contemplated what she wanted to say. "You have to be happy," she finally said. "I just . . . feel like you have to be happy." She frowned up at Jean. Not much difference existed between their heights. She would be taller within a handful of years. "I have Present Sight, but every now and then, I sometimes get a bit of the future. Mom always said it was because she and Dad have All and Future Sight, so it may have affected my natural Protean lineage Present Sight." She looked out at the sun, and darkness radiated out of her in the familiar way it did Edgar. Starting at dawn until end of day, they would exude sunlight from their Nature element, but in the sunset, the sun's power would instead draw into them and come back out as pure darkness. Only Shana could exude both at all times. "I Saw you. Eternally sad. I didn't See Byron. Jean . . . you can't throw away a chance at a soul mate."
It did not feel like talking to an eleven-year-old; again, very her parents' child. Jean sighed. "Les, there's too much against this. I'm trying to protect him."
"Not just leaving his home world, but something more." Her hands clenched on the rail. "I cannot become immortal like a Caretaker normally would. Nature of my lineage. No more than one High Priestess of Protea can live at a time. If I were to become immortal, I would live to see that third and final descendant, and it could be very problematic. Two of us in the living plane at the same time?" She shook her head. "It can't happen. So I cannot be immortal. That means if Byron and I become mates, he will forgo his Cultivator immortality. I can't ask that. He deserves to live a long and fulfilling life after what he's suffered."
Leslie started to go back inside and then paused at the door. "Maybe he'll only have a fulfilling life if you're there to fill it as his Caretaker. We don't choose inferior mates, right?" She went back inside and shut the door softly behind herself. She had just been unable to shake the feeling she had to speak up. Maybe it had been another part of the Pivot that had brought her back for Rachel—and maybe the choice laid not with a Cultivator this time, but a Caretaker. That might make sense of a lot.
And so, it was with great reluctance that Jean found herself standing with Byron outside her apartment door the next morning and watching as the others left to go back to Lux. He would stay with her to make sure that the enemy didn't even consider going back after her. At least, that was his secondary reason. His primary reason was one she didn't want to dwell on. "You could go home, you know," she muttered. "I doubt they'll be back after me."
"My sister kicked me out. Said I needed a vacation. I'd hate to make her mad at me," he countered calmly. "You know how Ruler Cultivators are."
Caught in that logic, she couldn't do anything except sigh and go back into her apartment. She was doomed.
* * * * *
The other three minions of Dragonsbane were gathered around the crystal orb when the twins returned from Protea. Both were limping, and Jaslyn rushed over to them to help them sit down. "Oh my god!" she said. "What happened? Did a Defender do this?"
"No," Siana groaned. Her entire body throbbed from the blast she had taken. It felt like it had slammed directly into her soul. She had entirely forgotten that dragons could be a tiny bit more susceptible to majik to begin with, and Jean's in particular had seemingly punched through their defenses as if they had not existed. "That witch of Linx's did it. Quite frankly, she's too strong, and she's apparently the mate of a Defender Cultivator from another galaxy. Ranunculus, I think. That's what he looked like anyway."
Linx grimaced. "I suppose we need to find a balance then. I have another target in mind, thankfully. I had wondered if this would happen. When I first latched onto this Jean, she resonated so strongly she nearly broke the orb."
All eyes shifted toward him. "You're joking," Reggie breathed.
"I wish I was." Linx raked a hand through his hair. "Everyone scat." As Talla also made motion to leave, he looked at her. "Not you. You stay here."
"Uh-oh." Jaslyn was quick to get out the door, and the limping twins and Reggie were right behind her. No one wanted to stick around for the fight.
Talla wouldn't have minded making a run for it herself. Things had been more strained than ever between her and Linx since he had barged into her room. She would catch him staring at her, and it would make her entire body flush with heat. So terribly unfair. "Yes?" she asked as calmly as she could. Her eyes widened as his hand closed around her wrist and he yanked her up against his body. He felt insanely tempting, and she fought the urge to press even closer. His scent seared her lungs. "What?" she managed to ask, though it came out as a whisper.
"I still want you," he warned in a low voice.
"You don't like mixed breeds," she retorted with a touch of pain.
"Yes, I do." Frustration leaked into his voice. "You're so damn smart yet can't see me lying through my teeth?"
"To us or Irimara?"
"Quit goading me!" he nearly shouted. "If I take you as my lover, Irimara will have both our tails! She'll replace me so fast your head will spin, and the kids will be subjected to the mercy of whatever uptight, asshole purebred she brings in behind me! You've seen the way she's treated her own niece."
"She has no one to replace you with!" she shouted back. And wouldn't dare attempt it anyway, of that Talla was sure. "You are an idiot!"
He yanked her off her feet and kissed her with the force and fury of weeks' worth of frustrated hunger. He was no more comfortable with his human body than Talla, but he had learned to not ignore instincts and reflexes that the new system threw at him. He had always assumed kissing was an overrated human thing. Human thing, yes; overrated, no. Her taste seared every nerve ending with sheer delight.
When he finally released her, she could only gape at him. He had wrapped both arms around her and she was dangling several feet off the floor. She had never felt so utterly small before in her life, not even as a petite dragon. "Put me down," she managed to say, and her voice came out with a slight purr to the edge that startled her.
He very carefully put her down and backed up a step. "Do me a favor," he told her. "Try not to be so damn tempting to me. I have enough trouble keeping my hands to myself. Now excuse me while I find Reggie. I have a new target for him." He turned and walked away before he gave in to the urge to kiss her again.
She growled softly. "You act as if I do it on purpose!" she said under her breath. Temper had begun to replace her previous pain. Irimara had nearly ruined her life, but now it was as if she was being given a second chance. If Linx made the decision, even now, then Irimara couldn't do anything. Talla took a deep breath. She needed to deliberately entice Linx, but she hadn't a clue how to do it with a human body. How did humans flirt anyway?
Mulling over it still, she left toward her room. And, watching from around the corner, Siana said to Jaslyn, "I win the bet. You owe me cookies."