The Unseen Kingdoms - Chapter 3

(Rebirth Era, Year 1)

It was something indefinable that woke Shana from a sound sleep. She drowsily curled closer against Rocky and wrapped her arm around his chest. "Here we go again," she said sleepily. "A Delphinium child awake before dawn. It's the sign of the end times." Protea represented the day; they went to sleep and got up early. Delphinium represented the night; they stayed up and slept in late. Shana and Rocky, and their siblings, had adjusted on both ends to meet in the middle, but it still took something dramatic to get either Toulume to open their eyes before the first rays of the sun.

He covered her hand with his and didn't say anything for several moments. She let their hearts and souls attune deeper, and she felt instantly that a tug-of-war happened inside his soul. Something, or someone, was reaching out to him. There was only one person besides herself or his sister that could touch his soul in that way. "You sense Sabin." She feathered her lips across his shoulder gently. "Or is he sensing you?"

"It's probably mutual," he admitted roughly. He closed his eyes. "Is this how you felt when you saw Alexandria again? The urge to yell and scream and cry and refuse to let go?"

"Hard to say. We were kids, so maybe I just didn't really understand the crazy kaleidoscope of emotions going through me. I would hazard that if we'd been older, yeah, I would have yelled and screamed and cried. Okay, maybe not cried. But I would have definitely been pretty pissed because of how she sent me away at the end of the kingdoms." She rubbed her cheek against his shoulder. "Are you pissed at Sabin?"

"Probably unfairly so. He sacrificed himself to save Claret, as he rightfully should as her Caretaker and husband, and it probably gouged him to know he would be hurting me as badly as he hurt her—but he also knew that saving her had the best odds of saving me, so he acted like you'd expect the Lead Commander to do and made the sacrifice." He sat up and raked his hands through his messy hair. The fluffy curls always got extra wild after being slept on. As short as he tried to keep them, it did little to help. "It was like being gutted when I felt him ripped out of me."

She sat up as well and wrapped her arms around his waist. "But you feel him now. He's coming back. He's looking for you. I'm sure he is."

"Will he remember?"

"I think so. It seems logical. Maybe he might not remember Claret specifically—the way the Cultivators have never remembered their soul mates—but he will remember the kingdoms and you. It would be symmetrical. But then again . . . I can't see Destiny or Time wiping that from him, or any of the Commanders. It would keep them from interfering where they shouldn't."

"Why shouldn't they?" he asked her. When she hesitated, he grabbed her shoulders. "Shana. This is not the time to keep secrets from me. What do you know that you haven't told Edgar or I, or Siobhan? If there's something wrong with the Commanders, we have right to know. They are to Edgar and me what the Defenders are to you and Siobhan. My parents were entirely right when they said that I and Evan needed our own."

She eased up and kissed him tenderly. "Calm down. It's nothing extremely critical yet. And it should be easily fixed. I only just recently figured it out." Her smile softened. "Remember I told you I found this really cute little divination and charm shop? Well, maybe it's time I told you why I was drawn there . . ."

Later that day, as Shana left her college class for the day, she was still thinking over her conversation with Rocky from the night before. It had been a month since Rachel had left for the future. August had come with all the vengeance of summer and had not yet begun to taper back down toward what passed for fall. It seemed an odd time for change to happen. Usually it came around in autumn rather than summer. September, October, and November—especially October—were the heralds of change.

Andromedian had been utterly silent, though he still loomed as a threat. Things felt in fluctuation somehow, and even Clara could not determine why. Oddly, she suspected another Paradoxal Pivot looming—which seemed fairly unusual to be coming on the heels of the one around Rachel. Destiny clearly had some big blocks lined up to tumble. Perhaps the final payoff would arrive in that autumn time.

"Hey, Shana!"

The familiar yet unfamiliar female voice had her cocking her head a bit. She swung around with a bit of a frown and then stopped dead as her eyes widened. The young woman who looked only a year or two younger than herself was very unexpectedly familiar . . . just much older than she remembered. "Rachel?" she blurted.

Rachel skidded to a stop in front of her and grinned. "Believe it or not, yes! I'm turning twenty-four in a few months."

Shana shook her head as she tried to process that. "Wait. Hang on. That's not possible. Eras move at the same pace. Clara said her Sight said you landed in Resurrection Year 2, which is what is supposed to be concurrently running to our Rebirth Year 1. So . . . you've passed through almost fourteen years and we didn't?"

The nearly-adult Apprentice sighed. Not much maturity remained for her to reach at her age, and she still stood a little taller than average. Her mother's height, in fact. She had cropped her hair to frame her face, and she still looked deceptively delicate compared to her likely strength. Unfortunately, though maturity had brought age and loveliness with her height, it had not really brought an overly distinct figure, much to her dismay. "Yeah, we've sort of got a problem."

Shana braced her shoulders. "Alright. Let me have it."

"I'm not yet Activated. At all. Haven't found my Mask, either. My Seed is definitely thawing, and I keep finding more magic I can use of either Ruler or Defender orient—I'm likely offensively styled on the latter—but I'm really late blooming overall. Everything in the future just . . . went crazy. The Hall is in severe fluctuation. It smelled like a Pivot, big time, so Mom told me to come back and find out what's going on. I landed to discover the discrepancy. Has Mom here felt anything?"

"For sure not! She knows better than to keep that a secret." Shana frowned. "Wait. Then that means that Time and Destiny have to be working together because this Era literally stopped moving for thirteen years without anyone noticing! That would definitely have set off a fluctuation, and, yeah, that definitely smells like a Paradoxal Pivot in motion."

Rachel nodded. "Someone has done something to make a fluctuation so big it is throwing off both timelines. The future literally hinges on something that is happening, and apparently I have to be here for it!" Her eyes narrowed. "Is Andromedian still an issue?"

"He is, but he's been damned quiet. If he's up to something, it's beyond even my Sight." Shana drummed her fingers on her arm briefly. "Alright. You can stay with me and Rocky in Edgar's old room. Clara is living with Alexandria, Kellie, and Desiree. They decided to stay roommates until eventually they encounter their soul mates." She blinked and looked at Rachel.

Rachel grinned. "You think I'd tell you secrets of the future?"

"Considering there's the Delay, what would it hurt?"

"Fair enough." She considered how much to tell. "Okay, to be honest, they're not there in the future. Which, yeah, has everyone worried. About as much as the fact that, er, I'm kind of the only Resurrection Defender Cultivator? I mean, other than yours and Sayena's daughters. And, yeah, I'll confirm that for you. Guess Protea and Delphinium decided that it worked well enough for you and Sayena that it would be okay for the next two High Princesses."

"To be fair, we already were like ninety-nine percent certain of it happening based on things we had already learned." She frowned. "The lack of finding the Defenders for the High Princesses is worrisome enough when they're . . . what?"

"Thirteen for Reagan and eleven for LeAnn. And, yeah, the age gap is another curiosity. Let's just say there's a damn lot of curiosities in my time, and it was a relief to feel the Pivot because maybe I have to be here to fix some of them!"

The frustration in her voice made Shana smile. "Welcome to being a Librarian, kid. I've heard that same note in Clara's voice before. That annoyance with knowing where/when not to interfere even when you could, or the equal annoyance of not knowing anything at all because you got too involved!"

Rachel had to laugh. "I am my mother's daughter in more ways than we all realized! Feh. Where are you off to?"

"The range, actually. I decided to pick up archery for fun since I didn't have you to tutor anymore." Shana rummaged in her pocket and then emerged with a key. "Head for the apartment and let yourself in to brief Rocky; he's off work today. Figure out what you might need for however long you stay, and then Clara can take you shopping. Or Sherry can attack you with fabric and needles. Either one works. Just come back by the range once you're done so that I can have my key back."

"Okay!" Rachel took the key and then headed off in the direction of the apartment. For a moment, she glanced back as Shana headed the other direction. Rebirth Era Shana and Resurrection Era Shanae seemed almost two entirely different people, and the difference was painful. For the first time, she thought she might understand finally why Arista had referred to a death when she had talked about the rise of the queens.

Unaware of the musings, but aware at least of her own future, Shana made her way toward the archery range. It actually connected to the other side of the university, and the grounds overlapped. Students got a discount on lessons if they wanted, and employees at the range could take some classes for free. Everyone won.

She nabbed her bow and quiver and made her way to where Alexandria waited for her. Her twin soul hadn't liked the idea of her being out alone for such extended periods of time—the practice could be quite solitary—so had determined to learn as well. As she came up beside her guardian, Shana contemplated the target. Only a handful of arrows sat near the center. "Aim is not your specialty."

Alexandria said something rude under her breath and took another shot. She missed entirely. "What the hell is wrong with me? I hit anything I fire wind blasts at, and I'm quite accurate with my hands, feet, or harpoon. Why is this so hard?"

"It is a little different, Lexie. I think you're just trying too hard." She took aim and fired. Her arrow not only hit the center, it also knocked one of Alexandria's arrows out of the target entirely. "See?"

"Now you're showing off. And you're late, I might add. Your boyfriend becoming a bad influence?"

"Nope, got sidetracked by Rachel."

"Rachel!" Alexandria's brows winged upward. "No kidding?"

"No kidding! She's almost twenty-four, which is as potentially complicated as it sounds. We'll all discuss it together later."

"Delightful." She smirked. "Well, I guess you're not the youngest anymore, but then again she doesn't count, so you still are."

"And I can kick your butt," Shana muttered. It had always been her bane to be the 'baby' of her generation, even though for a few weeks she and her brother would actually be the same age. They never let her live it down.

"Don't suppose I might join you ladies?"

Shana and Alexandria blinked at one another. The male voice was not only unexpected, it was also a bit out of place. It had the rhythmic accent more commonly associated to those who had been born and raised in the city of Vericity on an overseas landmass. The landmass had once been the biggest melting pot on Protea, so a mish-mash of accents and languages from other worlds had eventually culminated inside the capitol city in a single recognizable one after the last five thousand years. It always stood out when heard in other places.

Shana glanced back to find the owner, and she felt her stomach pitch to her feet with a combination of shock and hope. An unexpectedly familiar figure from another life had joined them. Her Dark core served her well as it kept the shock off her face; she really did not want to explain more to Alexandria than needed at that moment. "Hi," she said. Prosaic as it sounded, it also acted as a test.

"Hi back," the man said gravely.

Something felt oddly familiar about the exchange but Alexandria ignored it in favor of looking the newcomer over more closely. He appeared to be only a year or so older than herself, and he stood at a surprisingly tall height. Taller than even Rocky by an inch or two, which was quite remarkable in and of itself. His shoulder length hair had a smoky gray color, and his bright green eyes seemed to always be twinkling. He had fair skin barely touched by the sun, and his smile held a bit of a wicked edge, which only made his handsome features more so.

He also possessed a strong and oddly familiar power though Alexandria could not peg its origins. It felt sort of like the Flower Element of Memory, but not actually that. He wasn't a Cultivator, though. She could determine at least that much. He might well be just a gifted human, or a future Caretaker. Not hers, of course. She felt not much more than general admiration for his looks. "Huh."

"Does she bite?" the man asked Shana.

She gave a long-suffering sigh. "I've tried to teach her manners, but she just never listens." She offered a hand palm up. "Shana Chivanti. She's Alexandria Urias."

"Samuel Castlera, but everyone calls me Sam." As if taking a page from an Era before, he curled her hand into a fist and closed his around it in respect before bowing quickly. It should have seemed a bit silly in the Rebirth Era, but looked quite at home with him. "It's nice to meet you both."

"Likewise, I'm sure." Alexandria, deciding to speculate later, turned her back on him to resume her attempts at aim.

Sam could only smile wryly. The more things changed, the more stayed the same. He had nearly had a heart attack when he had seen familiar black hair glowing under the sunlight in the way only a Protean heir could. After feeling Robert so painfully close the night before, he had honestly not expected to discover his twin soul mate's lover right in front of him all along. They must have crossed paths a dozen times already on the range. "Sorry for barging in," he told Shana. "I'm an instructor, so I thought I'd see if you need help. Looks like you've got it in hand."

"Me anyway," she responded cheerfully. "Alexandria will never be an archer."

"Shut it," her twin groused.

Sam coughed. "In that case, I'll be on my way. I have to find my brother anyway. He disappeared somewhere."

Shana stepped out of Alexandria's way to let her make a shot. "Older or younger?" she asked curiously. "And how old are you?"

The questions rarely ever came across as rude since determining someone's age could be the difference between breaking the law or not. Too, knowing someone's age could often provide an insight into how much of their life they had lived and just what sorts of interesting stories they might share.

"Twenty-seven," he offered. His eyes twinkled merrily. "Aldan is younger. He turned twenty-four last month—I'm actually his legal guardian because we lost our parents a few years back. I'm healthy, I've had all my medical checkups, and I do windows on the odd Tuesday. Would you like my dental records?"

"No, that'll suffice." Her eyes twinkled, too. "I'm not asking for myself, mind you. I just have a lot of single friends. Some need . . . someone special."

"Oh, goddess," Alexandria said under her breath. "Who are you aiming at that you think he's the soul mate for?"

Shana didn't get a chance to respond. Another male voice entirely broke in with, "Sam, honestly. Must you stop to talk to every beautiful woman you meet?"

The complaint came from a voice not unlike Sam's, including the rhythmic drawling accent, and it belonged to a shockingly handsome young man crossing the field toward them. The two brothers were eerily alike in appearance—almost enough to be twins—but the younger stood two inches shorter and had piercing green eyes overlaid with a swirl of shadowy depth.

"He wasn't flirting with me," Shana assured him with a smile. "He's just being friendly. You must be Aldan." She laughed. "I and my brother look like twins, too, though he's less than a year older." She offered her hand to him and wasn't surprised when he performed the same elaborate courtesy as Sam. Siblings that appeared to be all but twins could often share many similar personality quirks, especially with power involved. And, as much as his brother, the former Commander Sabin Fitzgerald—if not more—Aldan resonated power. "I'm Shana, and I feel your pain." With a long-suffering sigh, she said, "I'm the youngest of all my friends."

Aldan Castlera grinned at her, and the wicked flash looked just like Sam's as well. Alexandria had started paying more attention now that she suspected her queen was on the hunt to pair someone off. She felt a smidge suspicious herself, now that she looked closer. If Sam was a Caretaker to one of their friends, that might explain why her gut told him he could and would be just as protective of her High Queen as any other Defender might be.

"Shana's threatening to play matchmaker," Sam warned his brother dryly. "She thinks our terrible bachelor days are numbered."

"Don't worry about me," Aldan assured her. His smile softened and looked a bit wry as if he was laughing at himself. "I'm a crazy romantic. I'm waiting for the woman of my dreams. I've never really been that interested in anyone I've met, even in the last two or three years. I figure that when I meet the right person, she'll make it worth the wait."

And it would absolutely become more powerful once he hit full adulthood at twenty-five. Shana did not find his admission surprising. It happened that way for more than just Cultivators; anyone with strong enough power could all too often feel nothing except maybe a mild thrill for others but then feel the full force and fury of love and desire when they met their soul mate. Only people with power received a soul mate; people without could certainly feel love and desire, but never the sort that went all the way through their soul. In exchange for not feeling a love that great, they also did not feel the same level of pain. It could truly be a double-edged sword.

She studied Aldan, her mind turning over Paradoxes. "What would she be like?" she asked curiously. "I mean, I assume by now you've got guesses. You seem like the sort who knows himself pretty well."

He thought about it. "She would have to be upbeat and cheerful. Spunky. Someone to have fun with. I can be sort of serious sometimes, so she would have to prod me out of my shell." He grinned. "I don't have any physical preferences, of course. As long as I look at her and think she's beautiful, that's all that matters."

"Oh, he's good," she told Sam solemnly.

He rubbed his nails on his shirt. "I taught him well."

"Ah ha! There you are, Shana!" The voice was Rachel's, and it approached rapidly. "I thought I wouldn't find you before the place closed and would have to camp outside the door to wait for you! On a related note: five minute call, and here's your key!" She handed it over with a flourish.

Shana pocketed the key on a smile. "Call noted!" She swung an arm around Rachel's waist companionably as the slender woman reached her side. "Sam and Aldan Castlera, meet Rachel Memoria. Rachel, meet Sam and Aldan." She could see a sudden surprise in Sam's eyes as if he somehow knew—which, really, she did not blame him for—so she added smoothly, "Talk about a strange world! Rachel's going to be my age in a few months, and yet my dear friend Clara adopted her anyway. She's known me since I was a kid, so you'd think she wouldn't want another pre-adult around, but I guess she's kept me in line well enough."

"Who're you kidding?" Alexandria muttered. "None of us can keep you in line."

Rachel tried to fight back a giggle. Her eyes sparkled as she looked at Sam. "Mom's old, but don't tell her I said that!" She offered a hand palm up to him, liking his devil-may-care smile. There was something comforting about him that made her feel utterly safe in a way not dissimilar from how her mother made her feel. "It's nice to meet you."

Sam kept the relief off his face as he put the back of his hand on her palm. Adoption. That made sense. He felt utterly ridiculous for thinking it could be anything else. Claret had once told him they may never have a child together, and he had been perfectly content with that. Seeing Rachel, however, he thought now that he might enjoy having a daughter. He had enjoyed Aldan as being more like a son than a brother, actually, and even Aldan had laughingly agreed about the dynamic shift. "Likewise, Rachel. It's a pleasure."

After he removed his hand, she instead offered hers to Aldan. Her heart had begun to make a merry racing inside her chest as she looked into his green eyes. She could not shake the feeling she looked into the promise of eternity. Gorgeous. Somehow he was far more gorgeous to her than his brother. She had never felt any attraction to anyone before, even after turning twenty-one, and certainly nothing like this. She actually felt breathless! "Hi." The word came out far breathier than she intended, and her cheeks warmed.

The shadows in his eyes deepened as the green color began to smolder. He caught her hand in his, but, rather than bow, slowly brought her fingers to his lips in a gesture of intimacy. "Nice to meet you," he drawled softly. He couldn't tear his gaze away from her face or her melting mink brown gaze.

Silence descended. Sam coughed. Shana examined her nails. Alexandria lifted a brow. A few moments passed and it became clear that neither Rachel nor Aldan could move, surprising no one. Twenty-five was not merely the age where someone became an adult; it was also the age where someone could truly, deeply, recognize a lover soul mate and feel the full force and fury of their emotions. You could recognize a lover soul mate sooner, and feel desire for them as early as age twenty-one (with a few earlier bloomers), but you never knew the true depths of a feeling into your soul until full maturity. Aldan and Rachel, so close to being adults, had gotten nearly the full punch of it. They would be in for a wonderful surprise after their birthdays.

Sam finally said in Vericity's natural language, "Aldan, are you alive?"

"Rachel only speaks standard Protean," Shana told them in the same. And probably Statician and the collective Blossom used by the entire galaxy once, but she kept that to herself.

"You had better not be talking about me," Rachel muttered when she heard her name. She hastily took her hand back and looked away from Aldan before she said or did something stupid. Why hadn't anyone warned her about what to do if she found a man she really, really wanted as a suitor? As Crown Princess to Statice, she had of course had a suitor list started right after her twentieth birthday, and she had reluctantly accepted a few names on it, but she had absolutely not had any interest in any shape or form in any of them. Aldan? Definitely interested! Maybe she could court him?

"We're not talking about you," Shana said in Protean, then promptly in Vericin said, "Ask her out on a date."

Aldan shot her a quick glare. "We just met!"

"And what's your point?" his brother-father asked reasonably. "Are you implying there's a waiting period before you can express your interest in someone? When it is done genuinely and sincerely, it is perfectly acceptable to tell someone you would like to know them better. It's actually better to be upfront about that. Less chance for miscommunication on all sides."

"When have I ever been the type of person to express interest in someone?" he asked in exasperation. "Pardon me for not knowing the rules!"

"Excuse me, but you have dated one or two folks."

"They started it."

Shana felt a little as if she were watching a father and son bicker, and it honestly made sense of so many things. Biting back laughter, she said, "Alright, then let's give you a few more minutes to collect your thoughts. Just so you know, unofficial rules state that as long as you're being sincere and not rude, and she's receptive, it's all good." She switched back to Protean as she turned to Rachel. "I just remembered I need to stop somewhere on the way home, so you might as well head back before me. Considering the . . . circumstances, I'd rather you not be alone." She looked at Aldan with a lifted brow. "Would you mind terribly escorting her home for me? It's not far."

Aldan felt happy for any excuse to spend more time with Rachel. "If she doesn't mind." He smiled at her. "We can walk or take my EC. It's a single-person bike, but a second rider can fit on the back."

"Intimately," Sam murmured in Shana's ear, and made her snort softly.

"We can ride. Save you a trip back for it." Rachel found herself letting him take her hand and draw her along with him away from the others. Her heart had begun to race again, but as she looked up at his face, his eyes seemed to make her whole world right again. She felt . . . safe. A different safe from how she felt around Sam or Clara. A more powerful safe. Not just physically safe but emotionally safe. It was curious.

"You're incorrigible," Alexandria told Shana. "Now what are you planning with the elder one?"

"You'll figure it out soon enough. We need to get out of here anyway. They rang the bell for closing up. It's just as well. You're hopeless. I should make Sam keep me company instead. That'll make you happier on two counts."

Sam didn't mind the duty; he had more than once in the past Era filled in for a Defender to protect his beloved prince's betrothed. In many ways, he was in fact just as driven as the Defenders to protect her because she was critical to his twin soul mate. He did find himself bemused as she hugged him goodbye, however. "Well. That seems unusual for you."

"Eh, I can be friendly enough. Oh, stop staring at me, Lexie!" Shana rolled her eyes as she headed for the exit with Alexandria ambling along behind her. "Really, you should trust me by now."

"I love you more than anything, but I trust you about as much as I can hit a bulls-eye. You're nearly as terrifying as Siobhan and Rocky when you want something. They still win, though. They get complicated. You just shove and plow through everything until you get the result you want. They manipulate."

"Just imagine what Rocky's and my daughter will be like!"

"Okay, no. I want to stay sane while I can."

Sam couldn't help but grin as their voices faded into the distance. He sort of liked the idea of his prince and queen's future offspring. She would be entertaining, to be sure! He headed for where his own carriage had been parked, but when he went to rummage for his key, he discovered just why Shana had hugged him. He pulled the business card out of his pocket and blinked at it for a moment. Okay, maybe he was a bit scared of the future after all. It was one of her cards, of course, and it had her address on it as well as two Personal Phone System codes. One had her name . . . the other had the name of Rocky Toulume (humorously listed as her 'personal wrangler').

He didn't even hesitate to grab his own PPS from his back pocket. Twin souls were as fiercely drawn together as lover souls. He entered the code into the memory bank and then said, "Rocky Toulume." The system beeped as it checked for the code, activated it, and he heard the clicking that meant it was trying to connect on the other side. A painfully familiar voice answered, and his fingers tightened on the phone. Softly, he said, "I understand someone causes so much trouble they need a babysitter."

The silence was absolute. Finally, softly, Rocky said, "You must be mistaken. I'm a paragon of good graces." Silence. Then, "Shit."

"Hey." Sam closed his eyes and smiled. "Long time, huh?"

"I'm trying not to cry. Don't help." Rocky took a deep breath. "Are you in the area? Want to get some coffee or something?"

"Yeah. There's a shop not far from where I am." Sam gave him the address, then added, "Don't blink when Rachel gets home. I promise I don't have a duplicate."

"That's a terrifying thought." Rocky's brows lifted as he heard voices outside the front door. Leave it to a Time or Memory Flower Element to have calculated departures and arrivals down to the second. "And don't DO that! It still unnerves me. See you in ten minutes." He closed the phone and put it in his back pocket. He took a deep breath to compose himself before he went to open the door. When he did, he realized why Sabin had warned him. The male on the porch was all but his body double. "Rachel," he scolded, "you're only here one day and you're bringing home strays!"

Aldan grinned. "I was ordered to escort her home, and it gave me the nerve I needed to ask her out. I'm waiting for her answer."

Rocky studied Aldan for a long moment and then not-so-subtly propped a shoulder against the door to block the way into the apartment. "I've known his brother for years," he noted mildly, "and they seem to be cut from the same cloth. If you like him, put him out of his misery, Rach. It's not like you don't have an army at your back ready to handle things if he treats you wrong." Which, all things considered, was not a concern.

"I'll endeavor to not give anyone a reason," Aldan retorted dryly.

Rachel huffed out a breath of combined humor and embarrassment. "Alright! I was going to accept anyway. Tomorrow? You can bring Sam by to meet my mother, and everyone can play nice, and then we can go from there." She eyed Rocky. Unlike Shana, he did not change a bit in the future. "Move it, rubber brain."

He snorted rudely and let her past. Aldan quirked a brow. "Rubber brain? We scored high, I take it."

"Yeah, a bit. My smartass friends won't let me live it down."

Aldan laughed. "If you didn't rise to the bait, they wouldn't take such glee in it."

He barely refrained from sticking out his tongue. "You're not any better it seems. I can tell you're related to Sam!"

"Are you kidding? I'm a paragon compared to my big brother." He smiled. "I'm sorry now that I didn't meet you sooner! I didn't know you were friends, and I regret that. I wouldn't mind being your friend as well, if you like."

Rocky smiled as he recognized another Light core, though perhaps with some Dark aspects—a very fitting Caretaker for someone like Rachel, really. "I really would like that," he admitted. "I need friends pretty badly. I'm terrible at staying out of trouble if I'm by myself."

"You've got me if you need me." Aldan lifted a hand in farewell as he went back down the stairs. "See you tomorrow."

Rocky watched him intently as he moved, and he was entirely unsurprised to see a body in full control and command as if from years upon years of training. The slightly younger male was as wholly trained as his brother likely had been, and after everything else, it was not a surprising revelation. A Caretaker to a Defender usually did come armed with a fair amount of skill, after all, and anything else their Cultivator needed.

He headed for the coffee shop, and he felt more than a little nervous as he opened the door. On one hand, the person he was seeing was a stranger. On the other hand, he wasn't. But when he walked in and saw Sam sitting at a table, a finger tapping nervously on the top, his worries alleviated. Nothing important had changed at all. He walked over and sat down across from him. "You sure you don't have a duplicate?"

Just that easily, Sam felt his own nerves fade. "My parents swore they didn't hate the world that much." He let out a long breath as he studied his prince. "Well." He offered a hand and their fingers clasped tightly. "You look the same. I expected that, of course, but it still feels wonderful to see you just the way you were then. Although your hair is a bit shorter."

"It gets in the way," Rocky complained. "I promised Shana I would grow it back out a bit more to the length it was in the last Era when the next one comes around." Returning to that length would allow it to more fully go nuts with its curls and frame his face, versus now as the curls clung tight to his head.

"I would hope you do. I always liked it myself because it suited you. And I would hope ours, and Sayena's, are the only opinions that matter." He let out another breath as he evaluated the tumultuous emotions churning inside his soul. "It's a curious feeling," he admitted. "I'm not a jealous person, but I feel positively green at the realization that your best friend for the last many years has been Evan. I didn't feel this way in the Royal Era, and you were already sixteen when we found each other."

"That's because, back then, you didn't know about me, and therefore you couldn't dispute what happened before you came into my life. This time, you've known of me for years, and you're kicking yourself that you didn't find me sooner." He quirked a brow. "The accent implies an ocean might have been in the way."

"For almost ten years, indeed."

"I liked your brother, by the way."

"No surprise there. He's a likeable sort. Gifted as hell, and perhaps more than I. He has Sight."

"Well!" Rocky sat back in surprise. "That's an oddity. What sort of Sight?"

"Present Sight, of all things." Sam rubbed the side of his cheek. "Knocked me for a loop when I realized he had it. I've never been able to make heads nor tails of it. I have a touch of Sight of my own, leftover from when Claret and I were lovers in my last life, but it's relatively vague as that sort of thing is wont to do. Aldan . . . I haven't a clue. I figure that we'll make sense of it when it is important. Meeting Rachel tells me that maybe she might play into it somehow. She's a Statice Dual Cultivator, isn't she?"

"Yes . . . sort of. Things are pretty complicated where she's concerned, as I'm sure you'd guess by her not actually being yours and Clara's daughter by blood." Rocky took a long breath. "There's been a lot happening, Sam. So much has happened in just the last year. We . . . we know the price. That Siobhan and Shana needed to pay for being Apexes. And," his eyes closed, "we need to discuss the empty slot in my Commander roster."

That gave Sam pause. He sat forward intently, his eyes narrowed. "Robert," he said very softly, "who are we missing?"

"Vermillion." Rocky opened his eyes again on a smile both wry and sad. "I think you need to know what's been going on, Sabin. Particularly to me. And particularly to Clara."

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