"Do I have to take those silly preparations classes?" Jaslyn complained as she followed Shana through the house. It was a justifiable question. January had come, and it was too late to enroll for regular university courses, and advanced ones did not begin until April. However, preparations courses for the advanced year had barely started, and it would prepare Jaslyn for any future studies she intended to do. Advanced courses worked quite different from the rest, so they actually required preparations.
"Everyone takes it. Even I took it," Shana retorted. The entire manor had become madness behind her as everyone scrambled to find their things for work or school. Edgar and Siobhan had already scooted out the door with Rhya since Siobhan had an early class, and Edgar had agreed to take an early meeting if Shana took a later one. Rhya went to a different school from Leslie, since Leslie was also in advanced classes to better help her own high intelligence move at the rapid pace she needed.
"Mom!" Leslie called. "I can't find my shoes!"
"Under the couch!"
"No, those are Dad's!"
"That's where they went," Rocky muttered as he began to dig under the couch.
Shana, without breaking stride, began to assemble lunches for the day. "Look, Jaslyn, I know how you feel. It feels very strange to take a class on how to take classes, but it really is to your advantage. I also know that you feel more than a little uncomfortable because you're not human, but you can wear sunglasses to cover your eyes—claim being light sensitive—and makeup will cover the scales."
"So much effort," Jaslyn grumbled.
"Well, it's that or sitting here bored out of your mind."
Shana turned and shouted, "Leslie! Don't forget your homework!"
"I know, I know! It's in my backpack." There was a pause, then, "Hey, where's my backpack?"
On the heels of it came Rocky's voice, "I'll help you find it. Hopefully it knows where my PCM case went. Last I saw it, the ferret was using it for a bed."
"He didn't eat my homework, did he?"
Twenty minutes later, Shana and Rocky dropped Leslie and Jaslyn off at their respective locations before heading deeper into the city toward the Chivanti building. Lux had been built right up against the mountains, so driving down out of them took very little time. Shana now found it somewhat fitting and almost ironic that her family home sat on one side of a mountain range that, on the other side, looked right at the ruins of her palace. Full circle.
Rocky glanced at Shana's profile as he navigated traffic and saw the smile teasing her lips. His carriage had a convertible top, so he had left it down to let in extra fresh air. The wind gusted through Shana's hair and made the hoop earrings she wore dance merrily. "What's so amusing?" he asked her.
"Genetics." She turned her head to grin at him, and her eyes sparkled. "You and your sister are too much alike, my prince. And you just HAD to pass on that particular Delphinium gene to our daughter, didn't you? We ended up with an early riser who still can't manage her time effectively!"
He coughed. "So our internal clocks are off." He smiled at her. "At least you manage us just fine."
"I do." She returned her gaze out over the scenery. "And as insane as it was this morning . . . I wish it could be like that always. For just a few minutes this morning . . . I felt normal." She laughed. "I never knew I wanted that sort of life!"
"You've never really fit into the mold of a High Princess or Queen, sweetheart," he reminded her softly. "You have always been as untamable as the sun itself." His heart ached. If it had been in his power, he would have given her that normal life she craved. "Well," he finally said, "the Resurrection Era isn't for another almost five thousand years. We might not have a pint-sized firecracker running around, but we'll be able to enjoy those insane mornings regardless."
"I just wish they'd never end," she murmured.
* * * * *
Reggie was staring broodingly into the orb when Irimara came up behind him. He went very still, uncertain of what she wanted, but all she did was wrap her arms around him as if to comfort him. "My poor fledgling," she said softly. "Jaslyn must have hurt you badly."
"I liked her." It was all he offered.
"I'm sure you did, but you're too young to know what you really want. Eventually your feelings will fade away." She held out a pendant to him. "I am entrusting you with a great task. I'm tired of this single target plan. It's not working. We will return to the original plan to drain large crowds. Insinuate yourself into their society and then catch them unaware."
He closed his hand around the pendant though his heart had sunk. Irimara was right. How could he possibly know whether or not Jaslyn might be his future mate? Even for dragons, they were too young for that. Still . . . he couldn't get her out of his mind. "Yes my lady," he finally said.
Irimara watched him walk away and her smile faded into a scowl. Silently, she rubbed her hands on her skirt. "Filthy mixed breed," she muttered as she turned and stalked into her rooms.
* * * * *
Jaslyn actually did enjoy her prep classes at the university. Once she toned down what made her look non-human, she felt comfortable enough to relax, and she found her classmates to be friendly and open. She had professed being from another world, and everyone had immediately moved to make her feel welcome and help her learn all sorts of things about Protea. They asked her about her 'world' as well, so she did her best to describe the Plane without giving too much away. It seemed to work, at the least.
"Hey, Jas!" The female speaker fell into step beside her. "Are you busy on Friday?"
She blinked at the other woman in sheer confusion for a moment, and then it dawned on her that the blonde was asking her on a date. She opened her mouth to accept, but in her mind had a sudden flash of Reggie's face. Her gaze lowered. She couldn't get him out of her mind. They should not have been able to know if they were permanent mates, and yet . . . "I'm not busy but . . ."
The blonde sighed gustily, but with friendly humor. "I always manage to like most the ones who like someone else!" She grinned. "If the one you like ever does something stupid and you want someone's shoulder to cry on, come find me."
Jaslyn smiled. "It's a deal." She watched the blonde walk away and then sighed as she continued down the hall. She was being silly. She needed to stop acting like some lovesick theatrical character. Reggie wasn't going to miraculously materialize and confess his love for her. That would be ridiculous.
Reggie stood around the corner and resisted the urge to bare his teeth and claws and go after the woman who had been hitting on Jaslyn. The savagery of his own response shocked him nearly as much as the fact that the humans seemed to like Jaslyn did.
Hiding himself from both the human eye and Jaslyn's senses, he began to follow her down the hall. He had come to the university with the intent of draining lifeforce off the students since they seemed to have limitless amounts. Seeing Jaslyn had sidetracked him. Now he was more interested in learning more about her life than attacking anyone at all.
Everyone she spoke to seemed to like her. And she was . . . smiling. She was smiling and her entire body seemed relaxed. He could not see her eyes, but she still looked so beautiful. He had never seen her look so happy before.
Just approaching her would get him in trouble. He needed to get closer to her without drawing Irimara's wrath or Jaslyn's suspicion. He could finally only think of one thing, and since Irimara had told him to insinuate himself into the society, it ought to work just fine.
In the prep class, Jaslyn listened briefly as the teacher called everyone to attention but then got distracted by the doors opening to allow a young man to walk in. Her eyes widened slowly. He had taken pains to disguise himself—his hair now looked solidly black, he had disguised his scales, and he wore sunglasses—yet she knew for sure that it was Reggie in the doorway
"Class," the teacher said, "meet Drake. He just transferred from Vericity's landmass. Make him feel welcome, alright?" She smiled at the young man. "Drake, the seat beside Jaslyn is open. She's fairly new to us as well so I'm sure she'll be glad to help you get caught up. She also has a similar eye condition, so you should be able to help one another out."
Jaslyn held her breath as he walked toward her. Her eyes kept trying to tell her it wasn't Reggie, it couldn't be, and at the same time all her other senses insisted that it was. She darted a look up at him as he stopped beside her. It really did look like him and yet there didn't seem to be any recognition on his face. "Er, hi. I'm Jaslyn Rex."
"Drake." Reggie's heart pounded so hard that he was surprised she hadn't heard it. He carefully sat down beside her and the scent of her curled around and into his lungs. She smelled . . . like mint. Darting a quick look at her as she opened her book, he could see why. She was eating peppermint. He loved mint. "Uhm, it's nice to meet you."
It even sounded like him. She desperately hoped he could not hear the pounding of her heart. Trying to hide her steadily growing attraction, she scooted her book closer so that he could see. When he didn't move, she scooted closer personally and inched the book closer. His body heat felt delicious and she fought back an urge to cuddle. If this was the starting shot of their ages, she sort of felt scared what adulthood would bring, and very much had a better idea of why the Cultivators had such tempestuous relationships.
Somehow she made it through class without saying something stupid or doing something embarrassing. She hastily gathered her things at the end and hurried out of the room to head toward her next class. Preparations classes came in four sets, and she had two on each day of the week though they alternated which two she attended. She had a lengthy break between the two classes, so she usually just hung out in the area around the second one since it had a great view of the sports being played.
She discovered a game of hexball in progress, and she smiled to see Tyson coaching. He spotted her in turn and waved, and she waved back. Maybe she should take up hexball herself. She loved to run since it got as close to flying as she could in a human body. Daphne had also introduced her to playground swings and those were fun.
Caught in the fun memory, she didn't realize that Drake had come up behind her until he said, "What do you intend to study after preparations?"
She stifled a shriek and leapt forward. She also leapt herself out over a small hill. He grabbed for her but the forward momentum sent them both tumbling down the side. When the dust settled, she was sprawled in the grass under him. His hands had been trapped under her head as if he had tried to protect her. He lifted his head and looked her over quickly. "Are you okay?" he asked. "I didn't mean to scare you."
"Uhm." She felt her cheeks burning. "I'm okay." Her eyes dipped to his mouth. She really wanted to kiss him. "Can you let me up?"
He stared down at her. Her lips drew his gaze like a magnet. She still smelled like the peppermint she had eaten. He wanted to kiss her. He wanted to kiss her badly. Unable to resist, he lowered his head and softly touched his lips to hers. The little purring sound of delight she made went right to his head.
Certainty gelled inside her as he lifted his lips slightly. She knew his taste, and she had only ever kissed one person. Without hesitation, she reached up to remove his sunglasses and revealed beautiful color-changing eyes with diamond pupils. "Reggie, what game are you playing?" she asked quietly. "Shouldn't you be off attacking innocent people?" Her eyes narrowed. "If you're after the university . . ."
"No! I mean, yes, but . . ." He released her and sat up. "I wanted to be near you," he admitted. "This was the only way I could figure out how."
She sat up and studied him. "Since you're here," she urged, "take the advantage to see that Irimara is wrong. I assume you're posing under her permission, so run with it. It may be true that dragons can't live among people comfortably just yet, but we could. Shana says life is a compromise, and that if we can be patient, then in the next Era everything will be okay. We don't have to do terrible things to bring the future we want and a place to belong. We can have it soon enough if we wait."
He looked so wistful that she couldn't stop herself from reaching out. She framed his face and then leaned over to lightly kiss him. His fingers curled around her wrists to keep her there, and the wonder of the moment crept through them both. She slowly released him and got to her feet. "You know," she said huskily, "sometimes we can know what we want even before we're adults."
As he watched her walking away, he was fairly sure he had already figured that out himself. He let out a long breath and got to his feet. He might as well brazen it out. He couldn't stop now, and the idea of leaving Jaslyn felt painful.
* * * * *
Two days later, when Reggie sat beside Jaslyn in their now shared class, she smiled at him a little hesitantly before saying, "Uhm, Drake?"
"Yes?" He had never seen her shy before and it had him vastly curious. "Is something wrong?"
Lowering her voice so that the other avidly listening students couldn't hear, she whispered, "I sort of . . . made lunch this morning. If you want to share it with me." She was fairly sure Shana had a suspicion as to what was going on because when Jaslyn had asked to have the kitchen, Shana had smiled one of her mysterious smiles.
Reggie's eyes widened in surprise and then a smile lit his face. "Sure. I'd love to."
"Go Jas!" a young man whispered loudly.
Jaslyn turned and threw a ball of paper at him, and the entire class laughed, even Reggie. And as he did, he realized that he felt . . . good. He felt really good to be there. He felt like he fit in for the first time. The world had already begun to change, and he could see it. Five thousand years did not feel so long to wait until things got better.
When lunch arrived, he walked with Jaslyn out to a sunny hill where they could watch students playing hexball. She set out the little boxes with their food, and he fell over onto his back with his hands behind his head. "It's amazing," he murmured. "I never imagined how good it could feel to belong."
"I asked Daphne," she said softly as she removed her sunglasses. That far from view, she felt safe enough to do so. "And we could belong permanently if we wanted. We can't be our natural form in public but we can be it in private. We would just have to follow the rules."
He looked at her in surprise. "There are rules for leaving the Plane? I thought . . . we were all just forced to remain."
She shook her head. "I asked that too, and she got a little mad at me. Dragons are not allowed to live integrated with human society on any world in Blossom Field until the threat is more diminished to us and witches alike but that doesn't mean we are prisoners. Irimara lied to us. We could live invisibly among humans if we bond to a witch, or we could live visibly in a human form—provided we do not mate with a human."
He sat up quickly. "Wait, that could happen?"
"She says it is super rare and has only happened once she ever heard of, and she doesn't know the particulars, but something her mother saw happen made her issue the order that if a dragon does find a human soul mate, they are automatically required to live in the Realm where they are safest. That might change too, someday." She huffed out a little breath. "I really don't mind that much living in a human form, Reg. I get to be with Shana and the other Cultivators! They're so wonderful. So much good energy. They love me and the twins as if we were part of the family. And that witch we tried to attack once? She's the High Priestess of Protea! That's why the Cultivators leapt to protect her. I'll get to meet her soon, and her companion, Haeth."
His head seemed to spin on its shoulders at the unexpected influx of information. "Wait. Haeth. That name . . ."
". . . is the name of the oldest dragon, an actual honest Elder who supposedly once served at Tananeen's side before discovering a witch to bond to? That's her." She moved closer. "So, you see? We can make this work. We can end this war. We don't need it."
He closed his eyes. "I can't," he said. "It . . . it's too risky. Irimara might come after me."
"I'll protect you!" She threw her arms around his neck tightly and his eyes flew wide behind his sunglasses. "I don't want you to leave! I . . . that is . . ." She drew back but couldn't meet his eyes. "I mean . . . I . . ." She took a deep breath. It was time she just said it out loud. She couldn't ignore the truth of it anymore. Adulthood would not change what she already knew; it would just make it more powerful. "I'm in love with you."
Shock echoed through him. He had never had anyone say that to him before. He had never heard anyone say they loved him at all. He didn't know what to say. He very nearly reached out for her but panic settled in. What if she was wrong? "I need to go." He shot to his feet and disappeared in the same motion.
Jaslyn buried her face in her knees and fought the urge to cry. A gentle hand on her shoulder brought her head around, and she saw Tyson kneeling beside her. His face was lined with concern. She threw her arms around him on a sob. "He left me! Why?"
He hugged her comfortingly. "It's not easy to break years of brainwashing, fledgling. And it might not even be that simple. Emotions only get scarier as you get closer to being an adult—especially for Dark core types! You're a Light core. You get it. You're comfortable with it. Reggie, I think, is as much afraid of how he feels as he is that you might not really feel the way you do. He'll muddle through. Promise."
"And if he doesn't?" she whispered.
He set her back and smiled. "Then you be a proper Light sort and go yell at him until he listens and help him learn that emotions are not that scary after all. It works for Siobhan and Rocky with Edgar and Shana, right?"
She smiled and rubbed at her eyes. "I guess it does."
Only an hour later, Reggie had returned to his normal appearance and hid himself from sight on the other side of the campus. He kept trying to tell himself he need to attack now before he lost his chance. It was just so hard! He didn't want to risk hurting Jaslyn, or the people she liked. To be honest, he wasn't sure he wanted to attack humans anymore anyway.
"It's hard, isn't it?"
The male voice had Reggie whipping around to discover that Tyson had come up behind him without warning. At first he couldn't figure out how the other man had found him since he had been using magic to hide himself, but then he looked closer and recognized Tyson as one of the Commanders that protected High Prince Robert as well the Caretaker to the Daffodil Dual Cultivator. "What is?" he asked warily.
"Confronting things that scare us." Tyson tucked his hands in his pockets. "You do know also that running from it just makes it more frightening, right? Sometimes things are inevitable. Sometimes we just know all along that that one person is right one. You know how young Rocky and Siobhan were when they knew they would marry their soon-to-be-spouses?"
"No . . ."
"Ten." He grinned as Reggie stared at him. "They probably knew earlier, but that was when they first voiced it. And they weren't wrong, were they? Just because we can only feel some things as an adult, just because life is journey of growing, does not mean that we can't figure out the puzzle before all the pieces are added."
Reggie's eyes widened slightly with surprise. Something occurred to him belatedly, and he frowned. "Why aren't you attacking me? You have to know what I'm here to do."
Tyson smiled and cuffed him lightly on the head as he walked past. "You won't do it."
Reggie said nothing as Tyson walked away and then he slowly sank down to sit on the ground. The Commander was right. He couldn't do it. He had realized already everything that Tyson had told him but he had been afraid to believe it. Also? When it came down to it, someone who was supposed to be his enemy had been nicer to him than even Irimara who was supposed to protect him.
He got to his feet and ripped off the pendant he wore. He would find Jaslyn and apologize. Before he could take a few steps, however, he felt his blood burning. He swung around and found that Irimara had appeared. Her face was twisted with fury and hate. "I'm not going to follow you!" he shouted. "You lied to us!"
"If that is your choice, then you can just join the humans in dying!" She made a sharp gesture. Dozens of Draconids appeared and began swarming into the university. Screams rose in the air as everyone went running for safety. Those who couldn't get away and got grabbed by monsters shortly found themselves sucked dry of all lifeforce and left dangerously weak and sick on the floor.
A familiar scream reached his ears, and he went white. "Jaslyn!" He took off down the hall as fast as he could, following the lingering scent of her skin and hair. He didn't even question the instinct.
Jaslyn had not strictly intended to scream the first time, but as she scrambled away from the Draconid chasing her, she felt a more deliberate one raising! She had tried using her magic already, to no avail. Gem-bound Draconids had far less strength than ones Irimara ripped up directly. What was Reggie doing?!
She hurriedly ran into an empty gym and slammed the door behind her. She was halfway across the room, aiming for the windows on the other side to escape, when the door was suddenly knocked down so hard it splintered when it hit the ground. She dove under a table on a second shriek.
The Draconid snarled and came after her. It grabbed the table and hurled it across the room. She scrambled away anew but found herself caught in a corner. She whirled around instead and Water magic welled up from her feet. She would go out fighting!
Mottled Metal and Glass magic suddenly shot in front of her and formed a shield. The Draconid clawed at it but could not break through. Jaslyn stared at the sight for a moment and then jumped when Reggie suddenly appeared in front of her. The magic around his hands as much as the copper-red color of his eyes said volumes. "You okay?" he asked her. A distant sound of magic and yelling told them both that the Defenders had arrived on grounds to help.
"Yeah. What're you doing?" she demanded. "Attacking and then protecting me!"
"I didn't attack! I was going to come find you to apologize but Irimara got in the way. She did this, not me! Like I could ever hurt you!" He gave her a crooked smile. "I love you too, you know."
The Draconid punched through the shield hard enough to shatter it and its fist continued on to hit Reggie. The blow had enough force to knock him back, and Jaslyn yelped as she tried to catch him. They only ended up on the floor for their effort. Before they could brace themselves for the inevitable end, brilliantly glowing white-gold magic shot in front of them and formed a new and impenetrable shield. The Draconid actually bounced off it as if violently repelled.
Reggie and Jaslyn stared at the shield and then slowly looked to the doorway where they found Shana and Siobhan in Masks and armor. Reggie felt a little shiver go down his back in recognition of power as he saw the amber-hilted black claymore in Shana's hand and the opal-topped long white rod in Siobhan's. The Apexes of Dark and Light.
The Draconid, sensing they were the real danger, turned and began lunging toward the two Cultivators. Siobhan quickly moved to the side, and Shana went running toward the monster in turn. She leapt gracefully into the air and her foot slammed into the side of its head. It went flying across the gym into a wall. As she went after it with weapon in hand, magic from Siobhan coated her blade. It took only one good strike to destroy the creature.
Siobhan rested the bottom of her rod on the ground as she turned toward Jaslyn and Reggie on a frown. "Are you both alright?"
"Yeah." Reggie carefully got his feet and pulled Jaslyn up as well. "What about the rest of the Draconids?"
Glass shattered loudly outside, and Thunder crackled. Shana smiled. "Trust me, they're being taken care of." She walked over to study him and crossed her arms. Much to her amusement, his eyes slowly widened as he realized she stood at least half a foot taller than he did. "So," she said. "What's this I hear about you turning against Dragonsbane?"
"I love Jaslyn," he said fiercely. "More than that, what Irimara is doing is wrong. I've seen it. I don't want to follow her anymore. If you will have me, Your Majesty, I will fight at your side as well. I'm not going to let anyone else suffer because she's evil!"
Her eyes sparkled merrily. "You had me when you said you loved Jaslyn. The rest just makes it better." She caught his chin in her hand. "Everything will be okay. You chose to fight for love, and that's the most important thing. Love is not just a powerful force, but also one of the most potent survival mechanics around. One alone is never as strong as two or more." She released him and smiled. "Come on. I have a big manor with plenty of room."
She walked over to join Siobhan, and Reggie looked at Jaslyn. Her hand slid into his and he glanced at it briefly before looking back to her face again. He would happily spend the next five thousand years staring at her in any form she took. Love as a survival mechanic? If it was, then he could better understand why dragons had gone to the Plane to protect themselves and witches alike.
And why Cultivators could survive anything.