The hospital where Jessie had decided to work while on Protea was a not uncommon place to Lux as a whole, and the Cultivators specifically. Siobhan had spent her childhood often sick, so had spent almost as much time there as at home. Octavia worked there, of course, and Shana had been in twice after traumatic carriage accidents. Kellie worked there as well, as part of her advanced degree studies. Siobhan would be joining her right after graduating from university and starting her own advanced study.
Jessie did not have healing abilities; for the Elder Cultivators, that skill had laid with both Defender and Ruler Cultivators of Orchid. On the other hand, Jessie did have the Sensing ability as a byproduct of her Ice Flower Element. Sensing almost exclusively appeared as a witch skill, and the few times it didn't, it ended up in the hands of Cultivators or Caretakers. Being able to tell when energies were out of balance could be very useful to anyone in a healing profession
Rather than be a physical or spiritual healer, Jessie had become something of a medical dowsing rod—or so Liena had long before teased. She could rather accurately sense what was wrong with someone when they did not have obvious physical or spiritual injuries, which the actual healers could then use to better treat the patient. She had not known how long they would be on Protea, and all of the Elders had known they could not just sit around and do nothing, so Jessie had walked into the hospital and offered her services. The fact that Yvonne's mother worked there in the cafeteria had been a side note, though useful.
Jessie's inability to look her age had always been around. She had looked thirteen in her early twenties, and even after dying at forty-six, she could easily be mistaken for her mid to late twenties. She often found it vexing; since she had stopped aging at forty, she would forever look ages younger than her friends. She had earned her age, damn it! It did have its uses, though, and it could sometimes be amusing.
"Hey, Jess!" an intern leaned on the counter where she stood organizing medicine bottles and grinned at her. "Are you busy this weekend?"
She had to smile. "No, but I'm not going out with you. I don't date coworkers." She liked him well enough, sure, and he had a handsome face, but she had felt barely more than passing interest. After five thousand years, she had accepted she just may not have a soul mate, so she felt no desire to look any longer.
"Spoilsport." He took no offence. She was too likeable to take offence with. "If we weren't coworkers, would you go out with me?" A shake of the head. "Drat. Oh well. I tried. Let me know if you need a hand back there." He smiled and walked away with a little wave.
"Jess." A nurse walked up from the other direction. "We need you in Room G-3. A man with some odd symptoms not matching any known diagnosis, that we can tell, is definitely not imagining being unwell, but we're stumped. Lest we take too long to figure it out and he get worse, we're hoping you can give us a direction."
"Of course. That's what I'm here for." She looped her stethoscope around her neck and headed down the hall toward the direction of the room. She knocked softly on the door and called, "Pardon me. May I enter?"
"Yes," came a male voice in a mutter, "but only if you don't have needles."
She smiled as she walked into the room. "I left the needles with the nurses to torture more deserving patients. My name is . . ." The words slid down her throat as her eyes widened in shock and a sudden hot surge of hungry desire seemed to burst through her body before fisting low inside. Holy goddess, she thought distantly.
It seemed entirely unfair that any combination of genetics could have produced such an utterly and devastatingly beautiful man. Thick lavender hair framed his face in wisps while the majority was pulled back at his nape, and almost silvery black eyes set into fair skin made a vivid contrast. He looked a little on the tall side, though perhaps a bit slimmer than may be healthy for his frame—sure sign of some sort of illness. Her pulse still switched over to a rate potentially equally unhealthy, and she felt her heart and soul wrench with painful longing to be close.
She hastily covered it as best she could and walked into the room further. "My name is Jessica Kalri, but everyone calls me Jessie or Jess. I'm the, hmm, medical dowsing rod, I guess. I have an ability to sense ailments in people. You are apparently stumping our nurses."
Jonathon Anderson had never before believed that perfection existed in any shape or form, but now considered changing his mind. The petite 'dowsing rod' took away his breath in a way far more enjoyable than the way he had been breathless lately. His eyes insisted she had to be around his age or maybe a bit younger, but her eyes implied she had to be vastly older. "I'm Jon Anderson," he told her. He shrugged. "And I'm not surprised I'm stumping them because the things wrong with me are not, hmm, normal?"
Considering she could actually sense magic of the Thunder Flower Element inside him, no wonder. She leaned against the counter and braced her hands beside her hips. "Try me," she suggested softly. "Start at the top." If he could tell her what had been going on, she could use that with her Sensing to get to the source.
"I was born on an autumn night," he said, then grinned when she laughed at him. "Oh, you meant from the top of the current problem. Sorry. Well, it started a few days ago. On the twentieth of November in fact. I remember that because it was my birthday."
"Some happy birthday."
"Yeah. The basic problem is that I've been unable to sleep well. I'm also tripping and falling into things as if I was exhausted during the day, but when I try to sleep, I feel re-energized." He hesitated, visibly, as if unsure of how to say the rest.
She lifted a brow. "No hiding anything. No matter how far-fetched."
"Okay." He shrugged. "I've lost my ability to see events that happened in the past." When she merely smiled, he stared at her. "You believe me?"
"Oh, trust me, I have friends with far more . . . unusual gifts."
Past Sight fell under the heading of Sight, but by nature of how it worked, it tended to be much less limited in who could have it. It basically allowed someone to 'borrow books' from the Hall of Records to look into their own past lives as well as the past lives of those they knew. They could also see a fair number of events under the limitation that the event be considered historical and not personal. Clara had always teasingly said those with Past Sight had library cards to the Hall, and she made sure they only checked out things they were allowed.
Just like all other Sights, the owner often had little control over it since it had the same propensity to just suddenly show up inside someone's mind as a vision to tell them something they needed to know. It could be more accurately controlled via divination than either Present or Future, though. Jon's ownership of Past Sight came as far less shocking than if he had had Present or Future, and his ability to control it also felt perfectly normal—particularly if she let herself think about why he had stirred up such fierce desire inside her.
She walked over and stepped onto the small stool next to the bed so that she looked him in the eye. Being short had enough issues, let alone when her patient skirted near a foot taller. She gently pressed her hand against his forehead and sensed the flow of his life. It was sluggish, to say the least, and it smelled of disease. A familiar sort of attachment from something external, like she had sensed in Jean, told her that Dragonsbane had latched onto him as a target, too.
Unease stirred inside her. He had two very distinct problems on his hands, one of which looked and felt particularly alarming because only Siobhan could do anything about disease, and even then she had some limits. "I'm ordering some specific blood tests," she said curtly as she grabbed a lab request form out of a folder. "I can sense a direction for us to take to start figuring out what's going on. It feels as if there's two issues at play here, affecting you differently. I can't tell which is doing what to you, but it feels like you've got a disease of some sort, and your post-cognitive ability is being, er, slurped by another problem entirely."
"Slurped." He grinned. "What does that make me? A mental slush drink?"
She couldn't help but laugh. He had a strange and wonderful blend of maturity and playfulness that appealed; oddly, he reminded her a bit of Diaz, of all people. The way his black eyes kept following her movements made her heart continue to flutter. Good thing she didn't have the blood pressure cuff on; they would have hospitalized her too. "Not precisely, but close." She held out the paperwork to him. "Get this done, soon. I don't like what I felt."
He looked at the request and then at her. Her hand had felt so perfectly cool and soothing to his skin, and he had felt . . . something underneath. Something that had almost smelled like irises. "You're special too," he said softly. "Aren't you?"
"In a way." She smiled. "Someone will contact you when the results come back." She quickly hurried out of the room before she said something she would regret. She had a powerful urge to go find the two divination-mastered Aster Cultivators and shake them into agreeing to find what was wrong with Jon, but she squashed it. Her determination to save him alarmed her more than a little. He couldn't be her soul mate! She just . . . did not have one. Didn't she?
Jon watched her go and then got to his feet quietly. She was not the person he had thought would be his destiny, but he found now that he did not at all mind being wrong. He wanted to see her again. Had to. He just could not shake the feeling that she needed him to protect her heart and soul
* * * * *
"What do you mean you just walked out!?"
Edgar and Doug looked up from the paperwork they had been going over and stared at the direction of the kitchen in astonishment. They sat in the living room of Doug and Yvonne's apartment while Siobhan, Yvonne, and Jessie experimented with some new recipe of Juliet's in the kitchen. Much to the males' surprise, it had been Yvonne shouting.
"I honestly did not know she could raise her voice," Edgar told Doug.
"Ha. Trust me, she can get there. It just takes a while, and she saves it for special occasions." Doug got to his feet and walked over to the kitchen doorway. Jessie was sitting at the table, a hand rubbing her ear, and Siobhan looked torn between laughter and horror as she stared at Yvonne. "What's the problem?" he asked them as a whole.
Yvonne swung toward him with her hands on her hips. "She met someone that in the same breath she said she was attracted to and was under attack from Dragonsbane. She then proceeded to say she had walked out and left him on his own!"
He felt nearly relieved. "Oh, is that all? Well, you've got that handled then." He saw Jessie glowering at him and beat a hasty retreat back to the living room. He and Edgar were going over some paperwork that Chance had 'borrowed' from Chivanti Corporation, while, in another location, Shana and Justin went over others. The two Commanders' experiences owning their own businesses had proven rather invaluable to both heirs, especially as Shana's birthday rapidly approached.
Jessie sighed and rested her cheek on her hand. "Yvonne, honey, I know that you're more concerned with my attraction than his potential attack, but you can calm down. Even Cultivators feel a mild thrill here and there for people not their soul mate. We just never feel an urge to go any further than maybe a kiss here and there."
Siobhan looked at Yvonne and then back at Jessie. Politely, the Apex said, "So nothing but a mild thrill for him, then? No inescapable urge to tackle him onto the floor while wearing nothing but a stethoscope?"
Jessie's cheeks went red. "Stay out of my mind!" she muttered.
Yvonne's forehead hit her palm. "Jess!" she complained. "After five thousand years, you would think you'd leap at the opportunity to finally find your soul mate! I know you started to believe you did not have one, but, really! Claret and Sabin?" She bent to look Jessie right in the eye. "Look at me and tell me you didn't feel that sudden freefall inside your heart and the sensation of landing safely in his arms." Jessie averted her gaze, and she straightened on a sigh. "Nothing you say or do will change the course now before you, Jess. You know that." Sadness filled her eyes. "We have all seen the sort of pain someone can feel if they know their soul mate and cannot be with them."
"Well, yes, but . . . It's too late now anyway. I mean, what do you expect to happen?" Jessie raked both hands through her short hair. Just her painful longing to see Jon again seemed to underscore Yvonne's words as a whole. "He's not going to come knocking on the door!"
Someone knocked on the door.
Comical looks of shock crossed Yvonne and Jessie's faces at the same time. Siobhan walked out of the kitchen to see who was at the door and returned a few moments later. "Jessie, there's a really good looking guy at the door who wants to see you."
Jessie cautiously peeked into the living room and saw Edgar and Doug standing with a very familiar lavender haired man. She couldn't say anything for a moment and then she warily walked into the room and asked, "What are you doing here, Jon?"
He grinned at her. "I bribed the cafeteria woman to get your address. I would apologize for it, but I would not mean it."
"Your mother is as bad as you are," Jessie accused Yvonne. She turned back toward Jon and tucked her hands in her pockets. "I wasn't asking how you had found me, I was asking why."
Siobhan called from the kitchen, "Edgar, Doug? Do you want some coffee?"
With more haste than grace, both men dove for the kitchen doorway. "Step away from the pot!" Doug said hastily. "We can do it!"
Yvonne also ducked back into the kitchen, and Jessie sighed as Jon stared at her. "Siobhan has this random ability to make the most terrible coffee known on any plane of existence. We don't know why, but she's not allowed near the machine."
"I have a cousin like that. And . . . it's just as well." He walked closer to her and was not displeased at all with how she watched him warily. If she hadn't been attracted to him in return, she wouldn't have been so cautious. "I wanted to ask you out." She opened her mouth, and he added blithely, "I've had all my shots. Really. You can check my medical history."
She found a laugh. "Jon, I'm flattered but . . . I'm too old for you."
He lifted a brow. "You're kidding. I'm twenty-eight."
"I'm forty-six." Or close enough, anyway. It would be far more difficult to give the exact number since she had stopped counting after a while. "I just look young. I always have. I let everyone think I'm younger because I got tired of correcting people all the time." It was as good an excuse as any.
He tucked his hands into his pockets. "Hmm." After a few moments, he decided cheerfully, "Well, I don't mind. Go out with me anyway."
Her jaw dropped. "What part of 'no' didn't you hear?"
"I didn't hear you say no," he pointed out. "I heard an excuse as to why you don’t think we're compatible—and it's a cruddy excuse anyway. Age is irrelevant if we're both adults. If you genuinely want to say no, then say it, and I will abide by it. You can't, though, because we're both in over our heads already. What will it hurt, Jess? Just one date? We'll make it all fancy and formal so you don't get scared by any cozy intimacy that might be coming on too soon."
She closed her eyes on a sigh; hard to argue with him when he had hit it on the head across the board. "Alright, fine." Her eyes opened swiftly in surprise as he suddenly stepped forward and bent down to kiss her lightly. Almost unconsciously, his hand caught her upper left arm to hold her close, and she felt the touch all the way to her soul. Her entire body flushed with greedy heat. As he eased back, she managed, "Don't do that."
He grinned. "In that case, I'll do it more. I'll pick you up tonight at nineteenth hour." Whistling softly, he let himself out of the apartment.
"I'm out of my mind!" she groaned. She whirled and leveled a finger at Yvonne and Siobhan as they peeked out of the kitchen. "You two were not helping!" she accused. "Now I'm stuck going out with him to some fancy restaurant and I have nothing to wear!"
"That's fixable!" Siobhan countered cheerfully. "We'll call Sherry and Desiree!"
Five hours later, feeling not unlike a store mannequin or a dressmaker's dummy, Jessie found herself wearing a lovely purple dress covered with yellow splotches that almost looked a bit like the purple iris of her home world. Desiree had also gone at her hair and done some surely magical thing to it that had made the short locks look particularly nice. "I think it's an Iris thing," Desiree told her warmly. "You lot don't care a bit for any style and wear whatever comes to hand, often ending up a bit haphazard, and yet it's so you that you look good anyway. And then when you do take effort—or someone takes it for you—then you just look stunning."
"I sort of feel stunning right now," Jessie confessed.
Yvonne smiled. "You'll knock him dead. You keep saying you're not pretty, but you really are." She held out a tissue wrapped package. "Here. This was going to be a going away gift for the end, but I want you to have it now."
Surprised, Jessie opened the tissue to find herself looking at a stunning comb in the shape of a butterfly. "Where did you get this? It's amazing."
"Rachel made it."
"Rachel did!" Her brows lifted. "She has skill."
"It's also the exact thing that was missing." Desiree took the comb and tucked it into Jessie's hair where it wouldn't fall out. The colors in the comb connected perfectly to the dress and the necklace that Jessie also wore. "Perfect!"
The doorbell rang and Jessie pressed a hand to her stomach. "I think the butterfly on the comb got into my stomach," she said weakly. Her knees trembling, she followed Yvonne back down the hall toward the living room. She took one look at Jon and felt her stomach and heart flutter in unison.
He wore a formal black outfit, and this time he had left his hair loose. He had even added a bit of curl, since hair of certain lengths usually demanded curling to be considered formal. He looked too impossibly handsome for her peace of mind, and she half had an urge to skip the pleasantries and just get that outfit off him again personally. When he looked at her and his eyes widened, she felt as attractive as her friends who actually did modeling. "Hi," she managed to say.
"Wow," was his response. "I mean, er, hi." She smiled at him, and he felt his heart begin to beat faster. It really did not seem fair at all that she could actually manage to be more beautiful. At all. She wore lip gloss, he noticed, and he felt a strong urge to find out how it tasted. He hastily stepped on it. Suddenly aware of the fascinated eyes peeking around corners, he quickly curved a hand around her elbow and escorted her to the door. "Well, let's go." Under his breath he added, "Are they always that nosy?"
She had to smile. "Yeah. It's how I know I'm loved." Her smile widened as she saw the beat up pile of metal that passed for a carriage sitting at the curb. "It has character?"
"It remains to be seen if it is of the protagonist or antagonist type," he admitted wryly as he helped her inside. "I work on fixing it up in my spare time." He got into the driver's side and started the engine, pleased when it kicked over without its normal cough. "So far it hasn't died on the side of the road."
"If it does, I have a friend who would give you a discount at her shop to have it fixed. She loves repairing old carriages." She studied his profile in the sunset light. Though he was making a show of being perfectly fine, she could see the strain at the corner of his eyes. Her Sensing ability felt full alert, saying his flow of lifeforce moved slower than even that morning. Significantly so, and not at all in a way she had thus far seen happen to victims of Dragonsbane. Her heart clenched on a stab of fear. They might not even be the most lethal threat this time. There was no telling what disease he had until the tests came back, and whether or not it fell under the 'curable' category of medicine. If it didn't, they would have to hope it fell under something Siobhan could handle. "Did you have your blood tests done?"
"Right after you left," he told her. He shot her a grin. "I want to know if it's contagious. If it's not, then I can seduce you sooner."
Her head whipped around toward him. "Dear goddess, don't you have any tact?"
"Not an ounce," was his cheerful response. "I've wanted to get my hands on you since about ten seconds after we met."
"Why?" she demanded.
"Because five seconds after we met, I think I fell in love with you." He parked the carriage in the lot of the restaurant and turned to face her. She remained silent as she stared out the windshield. "Jess, I didn't expect it either. Honestly, you're not who I once had a vision of as being my destiny. I saw a bit of her past, you know? Through her eyes. She was on another world, walking through a castle. It felt cold and snowy but warm, which I know doesn't make sense but—" He broke off as she held up a hand. "What?"
She fought to breathe. "Jon, I'm not Protean. I was born on another world. A world of snow. And I . . . I worked in a castle." Jon had seen her. Seen her from the Royal Era. Even knowing he had Past Sight did not make it less the stunning realization. "You saw me," she whispered.
A brilliant smile lit his face. "No kidding? That's incredible!" The smile slowly faded. "What world are you from, Jessie?" Silence. He looked at her for a moment, thought about her coloring and the empty worlds in the galaxy—and how long they had been rumored to be empty—and then said softly, "You know that nothing you can say will bother me, right?"
"It's mostly figuring out how to explain. Can I mull over it and tell you later?" When he nodded and smiled, she let out a relieved breath and got out of the carriage. She met him at the front end and could only smile as he took her hand. Her fear from never finding her soul mate had diminished a bit now knowing he might have been there all along. He could well have been there in the Royal Era, and like two ships in the night they had passed without ever meeting. Perhaps Destiny had planned this all along.
He kept her in stitches the entire time. He had a seemingly limitless selection of tales and jokes, and she was charmed to her toes. She shared some of her own stories, the ones she could share without revealing her identity, and found herself caught by the way his eyes glowed in the candlelight as he listened.
She watched him intently all through the meal, though, and she could see him getting more and more pale around the edges. Unease churned. "Are you okay?" she asked quietly.
"No," he admitted. "I feel like I could fall asleep right here, yet if I try to close my eyes, I feel like I'm being revved up. I also feel incredibly sick to my stomach, and my head might be trying to split open. Would you be mad if I asked if we could leave early?"
"Not in the slightest." She summoned their waiter and paid for the meal herself. Seeing Jon's glower, she smiled and said, "I know you did the inviting, but consider it my gift toward fixing the clunker in the parking lot."
"It's not so much a clunk as a thump." He got to his feet only to feel his throbbing head tilt on its axis. He did not argue when Jessie moved forward quickly to steady him. She may have been little, but she was very strong. His odd urge to protect her had less to do with her physical health than her emotional one. Unfortunately, he could do neither right then. "Hell of an impression to make on you," he said wryly as they left.
"I work in a hospital. This doesn't really unnerve me, other than it being you." A chill ran down her back as if to warn danger lurked close by. Had she already started manifesting the Defender-based ability to sense danger to her Caretaker? She began cursing mentally. If she had to fight, she ran a disadvantage for not having attack magic, and she really did not feel like springing that on Jon without preparation anyway. He said he loved her, but he had no idea what it truly entailed.
"Would you mind driving?" He sagged against the side of the carriage as they reached it. "And . . . I think you might want to take me to the emergency room." He suddenly began to cough violently, and she felt her heart freeze as she saw a dark stain appear on his fingers.
Before she could say anything, she heard a familiar voice behind her say, "Let me just take the last of his lifeforce, and then you can take him to the hospital. Fast. Because I wasn't aiming for him to die. I didn't realize I was taking his power with his lifeforce!"
She turned sharply and found Reggie standing a few feet away with a frown on his face. The pendant he wore glowed brightly. She could see that he meant every word; he looked almost as pale as his target, and fear etched the corners of his eyes. Jon staggered, and she hastily caught him to break his fall. She nearly lost her balance so gently lowered him to the ground before glaring at Reggie. "If you're so concerned, then leave now."
"I want to," he said with all honesty, "but if I do without a fight, Irimara would have my tail. Can you . . . maybe pretend to fight me? Just real fast. Make a big show of being stronger." He shot a worried look at Jon. "He's really sick. We don't want people to die. That's not the point. We just want to be free to leave the Plane."
Jessie got to her feet and pulled her Mask off her earring. It grew to full size, and she donned it to call her armor. She did not have a weapon to call—again, Iris rarely did—but she had done some level of learning in her five thousand years. She shot forward at Reggie and snapped off a quick punch across his jaw, just strong enough to sting. He staggered as if he had been hit as hard as by one of the trained fighters, though, and backed up quickly. "You're too much for me," he said, "and I've got most of what we need anyway!" Softer, he said, "Hurry!" and then disappeared from the scene.
Jessie rushed back to Jon's side and knelt beside him. "Jon?" Her fingers tenderly brushed at his bangs. "Open your eyes, please."
His lashes flickered, then his eyes opened slightly. "Yeah," he managed to say, "I guess you are old for me. But I still don't care. I love you anyway." His eyes closed again, and she felt her heart freeze inside her chest as she Sensed the flow of his life ebb to nearly stopping. She yanked her Mask off and then looked around sharply. People had just emerged from the restaurant, and they began to hurry toward her. "Someone call for medical aid!" she shouted. "And hurry!"
Half an hour later, she sat in the lobby of the hospital emergency room, a blanket around her shoulders and hot tea in her hands. Yvonne and Doug rushed in the doors, followed closely by the Elder Defenders of the Light planets, and all ran over to Jessie's side.
"Jess." Amanda dropped onto a seat beside her friend and hugged her tightly. "We came as fast as we could."
"How is he?" Sara asked quietly. She sat on Jessie's other side even as Melissa knelt in front of her. "Do they know what's wrong?"
A tear slid down Jessie's cheek. "You know how . . . how those with Sight of any sort have exceptionally high mental wavelengths when scanned? High frequencies happen among normal people too, especially more intelligent ones, but when you dump in Sight . . . it's really high. And sometimes . . . sometimes the body just can't handle the frequency. It shuts down to give the brain more resources." Her laugh came out as almost a sob. "Reggie was saving his life. He had accidentally started taking Jon's Sight as much as his lifeforce, so it meant he began to level out. His body was shutting down slowly. It normally happens like an attack. Instantaneous." She buried her face in her hands.
"Jess." Yvonne stood in Doug's arms, hating what she had to say. "Siobhan . . . Siobhan knew. I called on the way to ask if she could help, and she . . . she said she had smelled it in him today. Knew that in this situation, she just could not help. She could heal his body but he would just keep getting sick over and over again without ceasing because she can’t change his mental frequency or strengthen his body the way it would need to endure."
A doctor who had worked with Jessie since her arrival stepped into the doorway. "Jessie," he said gently, "Jon is awake and wants to see you. You had better go now. I don't know if he'll make it to sunrise." He stepped away again.
"Can't he just ascend to the Realm?" Melissa asked no one in particular. "That would make him immortal and powerfully strengthen his body." She frowned. "No, wait. Shit. That would be damned dangerous right now. If he ascended, not only would he and Jessie have to split up, but he couldn't descend immediately. New members of the Realm need to have spent at least ten years there before that, not counting all the other rules!"
"Wait!" Amanda blurted. "Wait, I remember something I read." She wracked her brain for it. "Something about halting the process of ascending or going to rebirth by letting someone die and then . . . damn it. What was it?"
Jessie took a little breath as she remembered something so very odd for the High Priestess to have mentioned casually in passing, but now felt damn deliberate. "Jean told me," she whispered, "that a member of the Realm can ensure that someone who is dying—who has power of course—can bypass some of the processes by calling their soul back as soon as it leaves them, and then offering their own existence as an anchor until the point at which both can return to the Realm. Only . . . only soul mates can do it."
"Jon is your soul mate," Sara told her. "We all know it. Tell him everything, give him the chance, and then make him one of the Realm so he can come home with us."
Jessie got to her feet and headed down the hall toward the room he had been given. A privacy room, intended for those terminal. Her gut clenched, and then her entire soul screamed out in agony as she walked in and saw him hooked to only the machines that would monitor him and make him comfortable. Nothing to prolong. He could not be prolonged. "Jon?" she whispered. She moved to his side and reached out to cover his hand.
His eyes opened and he found a smile for her. "I'm glad I met you," he told her. "I would have hated dying without knowing you. Can you tell me everything?"
She closed her eyes helplessly. He was still smiling. Even then. How could she not love him? How could he not be the perfect Caretaker for her? Even when he was the one at risk, he somehow found a way to hold her soul together. "My name is Jessica Kalri, and I am a Defender Cultivator of Iris. I was born over five thousand years ago, in the Harmonic Era just before it become the Royal Era. When I died then, I ascended to the Realm of the Gods to take over duties as the Guardian of the Ice Flower Element. I am also a personal protector of the former High Queen Hannah Delphinium and former High Queen Genevieve Protea—though I briefly offer my protection to High Goddesses Shanta Protea and Enaya Delphinium right now."
He digested that. Then, "Well, okay then. That explains a lot." He broke off to cough, and her heart clenched as she saw the blood that stained his fingers. "Sorry," he managed to say. He looked up at her. "If I wasn't dying, would you have been willing to let me stay with you until I died later of old age?"
"Why don't you ask me if I love you?" she whispered.
"Okay." He smiled. "Do you love me?"
"Yes, you idiot." She sank down to sit beside him and held his hand to her heart. "If . . . if you truly love me . . . there is a way." She drew a deep breath. "When you die, I can call your soul back to your body and share my life. You would be immortal like me, but you would not be allowed to stay on Protea when my fight is done. You would have to return to the Realm of the Gods with me."
"There's nothing holding me to Protea. And I dreamed of you," he murmured softly, "when I was just a kid. I loved you when I saw you. If I die, then I won't get a chance to try and seduce you, or wear you down into eventually agreeing to marry me."
She gave a hiccupping laugh. "I probably wouldn't resist very hard. You're my Caretaker. It's your job to do that sort of thing." She lowered her head until their foreheads touched and smiled softly. "Were you going to kiss me when you took me home?" she whispered.
"Yeah." His free hand lifted to frame her face, and he drew her closer so that their lips met tenderly. Even as battered as he was, even knowing he was dying, he felt his heart ache with emotion. If that wasn't Love and Destiny at work, he didn't know what was. Yet there was more. He felt her inside. He felt the cool touch of her soul like icy relief on a hot day.
He felt no fear. He closed his eyes and let out a soft breath. He knew she would call him back. Without his resistance, the coma came on almost instantly. She sat silently beside his bed for the next hour, listening as the machines beeped softer. When they went silent, she stopped Sensing the flow of his life. His soul, brushing hers, seemed to want to float away.
She held tightly to him instead and wrapped her magic around him. She leaned down and gently touched his lips to breathe life and his soul back into him. There was a brief silence before the machine began to beep with renewed vigor, and he took a sharp breath even as a vivid iris petal mark appeared on the back of his hand.
His eyes opened and he blinked up at her for a few moments. Slowly he smiled. "So, how long do I have to stay here?"
She could only hold onto him and bury her face against his shoulder. "Long enough to make a miraculous recovery," she whispered. "Then you can walk out of here as if you had never been sick." She lifted her head to smile a bit tremulously. "I hope I can walk with you. I waited five thousand years to find you."
"I'll make up for it by being with you forever."
His fingers slid into her hair and he tugged her down for a kiss. Deep in the bottom of her heart, she felt it then, what he was truly saying. The kiss was a kiss of promise. She truly would never walk alone again. She finally had her Caretaker to be by her side through eternity.
Destiny, she decided, must have been in an amorous mood lately.
* * * * *
A few days ticked by, and Jon indeed recovered rapidly. His Sight ability stayed out of reach because Reggie had taken it, but even if and when he got it back, he would not be in danger again. As Melissa had said, becoming effectively immortal had strengthened his body a great deal. And he felt both bemused and humbled to be immediately accepted into the odd collection of people around his soul mate.
"You fit in nicely," Juliet told him on a grin as she patted his shoulder. They had all gathered in the Castlera backyard to have a casual grilled dinner party. "And Jessie is happier now, and easier to live with, so you know, we have to like you for that, too." She snorted softly. "If you hadn't been immortal before, you'd have been that way shortly anyway, considering."
He grinned. "She did not protest hard with my seducing her."
"I would hope not."
In the late afternoon sunlight, those of Protea almost glowed as the sunlight radiated from them as much as it did the sun itself. The downward shift from afternoon to actual sunset could be seen when Shanta, Edgar, and Leslie started exuding darkness instead. Shana continued to radiate both as she had all along, of course. What made everyone most intrigued was that Leslie, like Chance, ran a fairly close third to Shana and Edgar for the strength of a Dark core, and—again like Chance—only the anchor of Light inside her kept her from being closer.
However, proving the Light inside her actually ran stronger than the Captain's, she suddenly ran over to him and held up a ribbon. "Help me tie my hair up."
The look of horrified shock on his face sent Tyson and Sam into riots of laughter. Uwe and Diaz tried their best, but they barely fought back snickers. Michael and Doug whistled softly under their breath, and Justin and Nathaniel suddenly discovered they needed more to drink. Quite clearly, not a single Commander felt at all inclined to help the new Captain with the more . . . unexpected duties of his role to care for a particularly fashion-conscious High Ruler.
Chance felt his neck heating a bit as he realized that everyone had heard the demand from the princess, and all had started grinning or giggling. "I don't know how," he muttered at her. "Ask someone else."
"I want you to do it. And it's not hard." She grinned up at him. "I just need to you to tie the ribbon anyway." She grabbed her hair and scooped it up in a ponytail. "See?" Because she was as much her mother's daughter as her father's, when he sighed and looped the ribbon around her hair, she added deliberately, "In a bow, please."
Shana turned her back as her shoulders shook. Oh to have her camera on hand! It would have made a spectacular image to hang at home, and she might have even been able to enter it into a competition or two. She fought for composure and turned around again, only to discover that there was now a lopsided bow atop her daughter's ponytail. "I would assume," she murmured to Rocky, "that Desiree's job is not at all in danger of being stolen."
He burst into laughter and could only wave his hands in the air when Chance glared at him. "Sorry, sorry."
Since Diaz delighted in poking at Chance not unlike a younger brother might, he called, "Hey, Les. Come over here and I'll fix it." She skipped over to him, and he deftly retied the bow and evened it out for her. As he glanced up, he saw the scowl on Chance's face, and he withheld a grin. Chance's unknowing sense of possessiveness about the young princess had everyone amused.
The conversations degraded into different subjects, and Shana considered joining the debate between Sandra and Virginia when she caught movement out of the corner of her eye. She glanced over in surprise and discovered Talla hiding around the corner of the house. The Dragonsbane minion had a gray striped flag of peace in her hands.
Curious, she slipped away and headed around the side of the temple. She didn't worry that anyone would spot her; she had a knack for being unnoticed when she wanted. And since her lover who normally liked to have her in sight happened to be bickering with Sam as usual, he wouldn't notice either. As she drew even with the dragon, she realized that Talla looked very nervous. She lifted a brow. "A peace flag?"
"For the moment. I . . ." Talla drew a deep breath. "I need some help. It has nothing to do with our war. I need advice from a human woman. Sort of human woman. Human enough!"
Shana leaned a shoulder against the wall. "You have me intrigued. And since I can separate your private life from your 'professional' one, I'm willing to listen. It's the same theory that would keep me from attacking your lover even if I hated you, which, honestly, I'm still not sure if I do."
Talla nodded. "That's why I wanted to speak with you." She took a breath and then blurted, "How do humans get attention from someone?"
"Get attention . . .?" Shana blinked rapidly and then a smile slowly curved her lips as she got the meaning. "You mean how do we flirt? Or how do we seduce a lover?"
"Sort of both. There's someone I want. I love him. But he told me not to flirt with him because he was trying not to pounce on me. I want him to. I just don't know how to flirt with this body." Talla's cheeks turned bright red. "So . . ."
Shana considered her words. "This is tricky because the concept of flirting varies from species to species, and even among species as diverse as humans, it can be fairly different from person to person. I mean, I guess there are some universal things rooted in animal or natural instinct, but I think it mostly comes down to acting in a way that feels intimate to the other person, and to both making sure you have their attention, and that they know you're acting that way just for them and not everyone around them."
Talla nodded repeatedly. "That does make sense! And it's sort of like what dragons will do I think. We flick our tails under someone's nose, sort of like a cat would."
Shana grinned. "A human equivalent might be to bring your hand up close to the face to like show off your nails or some jewelry. Bonus points if you wear a perfume that will enhance your own natural scent or be something meaningful to the other person. I always smell like proteas, right? Well, if I put on some perfume that smells like delphiniums, wow. My lover sort of loses his mind."
"Where should I put the perfume?"
"Places typically considered intimate because there's a pulse there. Basically, if he wouldn't touch a casual person in that spot, that's where the perfume goes!"
Talla nearly snickered. It felt a little like laying a trap, but she did not feel guilty. "What about body language?"
"Damn, that's a big category. It again kinda boils down to individuals, their own personality, and what the current level of frustration is for your lover." She tapped a finger on her lips. "My lover, for example, can be induced into pouncing on me if I smile at him in a certain way. Smiles are lethal, especially ones that you only give to that one person and they know it. Ah!" She snapped her fingers. "Here, I've got an example for you. Come over here."
Talla joined her in peering around the side of the house at the others. Shana pointed. "See the younger Iris Cultivator? I think I can conclusively say that she knows nothing consciously about flirting. She filed it for a long time under 'have no need to know so don't.' But, you know what? She doesn't have to do anything on purpose. Keep watching."
Even as they observed, Yvonne automatically angled her body closer to Doug's as she leaned against him to look over his shoulder at the game of cards he played with Michael. It was visible that his concentration took a nosedive because he nearly picked up the wrong card only to drop it hastily on a grumble.
"See?" Shana grinned at Talla. "It's all about body language. And now for some more blunt tactics you might be able to use, watch me get my lover to haul me off in less than a minute." She wandered back over to where Rocky and Sam were still debating, and when Rocky blinked at her in surprise, she lifted a brow. "What?"
"Were you standing there the whole time?" he asked, perplexed.
She rolled her eyes. "Be still my heart, my prince. I feel so loved. What does it take to get your attention anyway?" She linked her hands behind her back to emphasize her body shape and walked past him close enough that her skin brushed his. Her hips swung just enough extra to be deliberate. "And here you said you said you were always aware of my presence." She looked back over her shoulder with a smile. "Fibber."
He had no idea why she was deliberately seducing him, but he certainly had no problems with the concept; after all, she was as much his Caretaker as he was hers. He stepped forward to snag her around the waist and tossed her over his shoulder. "You win," he said cheerfully as he headed for the stairs. "Later, everyone."
"You asked for it," Sam laughed at Shana as everyone else began snickering as well.
She had indeed, Talla thought as she watched. She had a good idea now of what might just work. First, and it galled her, she would ask Jaslyn to take her shopping. She wanted flattering clothes. She couldn't flaunt her body if it wasn't showing, now could she?