People at school responded to my presence as if they were waking up from a dream. I didn’t blame them. The fey could come and go as they pleased from the mortal realm, only remembered when They were actually there. Meghan and I had enough magic in our blood that the same applied, although a bit differently. It was a slower forgetting over time, but eventually we were nonexistent to humans. Kelsey, only a chosen human, had no such luck.
The weirdest part of my return was that Jem knew me instantly and had absolutely no memory of Ky. In fact, no one did. Lokesh probably wiped the wraith’s existence off the face of the earth after she failed him.
“I was beginning to wonder if you were staying in Oregon for the rest of your life,” Jem teased at lunch. “You know spring break ended two weeks ago, right?”
Knowing he might have been wondering where I was yet most likely hadn’t, I shrugged. “To be honest, I was thinking about it. Being with Kelsey again was something I didn’t let myself miss, all this time. And seeing Meghan was just such a relief, it’s not even funny.” The lies slid easily off my tongue, but not as quickly as they once had. Thorns pierced my heart as I tried to reclaim the life I had given up the instant Ky attacked.
Hazel eyes bright with welcome, Jem smiled. “Well, we all missed you, too.”
Oh, crap. Falling into the familiarity that was our nut-job lunch table, I realized there was one person who had found me long before Ash ever did. As much as I had been thinking about her all day, and the roles we used to have here, it hadn’t registered until now.
Later, I was ready to collapse in gratitude at being home. “Thanks for the ride,” I called to Jem as he started to back out of my driveway. On an ordinary schedule, this was his day for tutoring. I canceled a lot of my sessions for the whole week, as well as my training shifts at the stable. I meant it when I said I needed time to myself.
Locking all the doors and double-checking that all the curtains were closed didn’t count as being paranoid, did it? After I made sure the house was safe, relatively speaking considering someone could break in with magic, I holed up in my room with my laptop. While the reprieve had been nice, there were things I had to do. I was not naïve enough to think I had my normal life back.
It took me all of an hour to close my laptop in frustration. I purposely read through mundane stories of how they saw faeries, how the fey kidnapped human children, things like that. Stupid little tales that made me miss my friends –– and realize exactly how far I had grown as a leader, prior to the ambush. Just like this life had started, I was not always friends with Ash and the others the first time around. I did just enough to stay under Their radar, in the hopes that I could ditch my glamour one day. Until the war took hold of my home, I’d succeeded in ignoring Them.
So when a brooding young prince came to me for help, it was all I could do not to kill him on the spot. He broke through my defenses, his two brothers following suit, and brought me into the war that another royal family had started. The Winter sidhe, plus Ren and Kishan, all taught me how to use control, as well as learned some from me. The training was completely mutual.
The girls did not come into the picture until later. Mab, Oberon, and Titania had gone out to launch a raid on a smaller village under Lokesh’s command, to see if they could glean any important information while we “inexperienced knights” stayed in Arcadia. Meghan and Kelsey were running away from the wizard’s army when they stumbled into the trod that the faeries used, unwittingly becoming a part of the game. Ash and I took to them quickly, both of us protecting them from the cruel jokes played almost immediately by the Summer jester, training them to use powers they hadn’t even known they possessed. It was all very faery-tale-esque, and it was impossibly hard for me to recall.
And that was as far as I got that night. I fell asleep on my normal schedule, twin swords hanging above my bed just in case. Whatever I managed to remember of my life before, I dreamt of that same night.
Jem and my other friends kept close to me the following day, saying I looked exhausted. I felt fine, despite the need to go home and see if I could call up any memories of Puck. I knew that he had tormented all of us at one point, but there was nothing on the fact that we’d grown close. Hell, if the faeries themselves hadn’t said it, I would have believed Kels and Meghan were lying to me.
I was always the untouchable one. It made no sense that I had let the incorrigible trickster into my inner circle.
When another of my friends drove me home that afternoon, I held my tongue in check. There was a steel gray Chevy following us at a distance, not enough to alert my untrained companion but more than enough to catch my eye. Even before I entered the world I was thrown out of, I was always worried about people tailing me.
Keeping myself calm, I said goodbye and headed into the house. Not only would it notify the stalker that I saw, but if I freaked, Ash and Puck would know. I wanted to prove to myself this was a good idea. Although some part of me deep down was cursing off for not realizing Lokesh would probably have spies across the whole state.
Untouchable, I repeated. It was by far my favorite word.
As soon as my left foot hit the first step, I heard an SUV pull onto the street. I rushed up the stairs, catching sight of metal from the tiny window at the top of my front door. Power whipped the air around me. I slammed up a dozen different obstacles and wards without thinking, then dove into my bedroom and drew out every blade I had. My pendant burned at my chest. Various knives and swords hovered just behind me, fueled by my subconscious magic.
The sounds of battle reached my ears. I stepped out of my room, not wanting to be trapped. At least in the hallway, there was more space, and more doors to go through if I needed an escape. There was no doubt in my mind that the raiding party would break through my hastily-made protection. For that reason alone I would not go down without a fight.
My resolve hardened when I heard a demonic roar outside. I leveled the dangerously swirling blades. Pounding started on the door.
“Come and get me!” I shouted the instant I heard the door break down. With a quick word to my family’s pictures, hanging along the walls, I melded with the nearest frame.
Things charged up the stairs. I knocked the initial ones out individually, glamour sizzling in my veins. A wraith turned its eyes on me. The picture more or less tossed me from the frame, but my blades were in position. I turned them on the army that awaited me, swiping both with brute force and with magic.
Everything suddenly froze in midair. I had been about to hit the wall from a well-aimed strike by the same wraith that found me, so I was kind of grateful. Only a little, though, because I had an inkling of what caused it. Rather, who.
“How much trouble do you have to go through, my friend?” Lokesh pushed his servants out of the way to reach me.
I felt him give me repossession of my head and neck. I cracked my jaw. Content to glare at him for however long he kept me like this, I bared my teeth, which I hadn’t realized had grown sharper during the fray. The sorcerer grabbed my throat and shoved my head against the wall, which apparently was not that far behind me. I gasped against his chokehold. “I… am not… your friend,” I spat out.
Darkness wrapped around me. “I will restore your family house, because it means so much to you. This was never your home, though, Starr. You of all people have to know that by now.” He leaned close, his grip staying the same on my neck. “The only one who ever truly took care of you was me.”
“You suck,” I growled. “Fucking liar…”
“Uh uh uh,” he said rhythmically, hand tightening ever so slightly. I inhaled sharply as best I could. “We never use that language in my presence. Of course, you wouldn’t remember our rule, would you?” I groaned, losing oxygen faster than my singer’s lungs should have. He was charming me agonizingly slowly.
Fire surged through the house, burning the raiding party except for Lokesh. The sorcerer removed the spell keeping me frozen to the wall, spinning so that my body shielded his. My blades had clattered to the floor unscathed, but I was too busy clawing at the hand that threatened to tear out my throat. I had been in this same position once. That had to be why I hated people near my neck.
Puck stepped from the flames. “You’re alive?” Lokesh asked, not exactly surprised.
“I’m actually immortal.” He grinned devilishly. “Unlike you.”
The darkness swept into the edges of my vision now. I could feel my body shutting down from asphyxiation, of all things. “It’s a shame I didn’t kill you both when I had the chance.” One finger stroked my neck. I shuddered violently. “Too bad I still need you in this world, Starr.” I knew by his silence that he was appraising Puck. “Although, I can certainly take the pleasure that will come with your inner guard’s death, starting with this one.” I gave Puck a warning look born out of fear. I couldn't let him be sucked into this again, and I had one last burst of strength I could use.
“Easier said than done,” Goodfellow taunted.
When Lokesh shifted to get more control over the spell he had in mind, I stomped on his instep. His hold released on my neck, and I finished off my strength by whipping around and kneeing his groin.
As I dropped to the ground, I heard my weapons spring to life by some feat of Puck’s magic. They targeted Lokesh, but he was already gone.
Nose, throat, and lungs burning, I curled in on myself. My ribs ached when I coughed, but I couldn’t suck in enough air. That only made me cough worse. I was no longer dying, yet it sure as hell felt like it.
“Oh, Starr.” Puck knelt on the floor beside me, drawing me limply to his chest. Heat relaxed my cramped intercostal muscles and stayed away from my neck. “I’m sorry I didn’t get here sooner, little warrior. Up until he froze you, you seemed fine.” He touched his chin to the top of my head. I was shaking. “Didn’t we tell you that you should bring one of us?” he exclaimed, concerned more than angry. “Why are you so stubborn you never listen?”
I recovered enough to bury my face against him. “I’m sorry,” I rasped. Nope, shouldn’t have done that.
“Do me a favor and stop talking.” He kissed the crown of my hair. “I don’t care if you barely know me anymore. I can’t watch you push our allies away.”
His arm brushed one of the growing bruises on my neck. I winced. The raw emotion vanished from his embrace, and he pulled back. A sound of protest rose up in my chest, but I had no vocal cords at the moment that could make a noise so quiet. He had blocked me from his mind, too. Before he could slide out from under me, I reached up with a shaky hand to cup his cheek. “I can heal.” I smiled at him tentatively. “I already am.”
Grief was the last thing I expected to see on his face. “I can’t.” He propped me against the wall and went to the far end of the hallway. “I want to keep you safe, but all I do is hurt you. I just cause you more pain than you deserve.” The infamous Puck, the trickster that never got upset, brought his knees to his chest and rested his chin on them. He must have picked up the habit from me a long time ago.
Once again breathing correctly, although it still burned to, I silently ordered my blades away into my room. “I think it’s the other way around, Goodfellow,” I replied. My tone was half laughter, half seriousness.
The emerald depths reflected a lifetime of sorrow. “I miss you, little warrior. I can’t keep pretending that we’re going to come back from this.” Tears misted over his eyes. Puck, nearly as untouchable as me. It was unfathomable.
“You’re not giving up, are you?” I asked incredulously.
Puck snorted sarcastically. “Like I would ever give up on you.”
“Good.” Ash had told me something important that first day. If my partner were here, you would remember everything that had been altered. Except Puck had been like Ash and the others, babying me about the life I changed. “Because you and I can get my memory back.”
Straightening, he shook his head. “You wanted time to yourself to figure out what happened,” he began to argue.
I rolled my eyes. “Ren already did half the work for you. Now you can either come sit and help me, or I’m going to ignore you for the rest of my life.”
“Are you serious?” I slid my gaze sideways, as if he had suddenly disappeared. He got to his feet and, walking over, held out a hand. “I’m not going to tell you the story out here.” I stared past him. “Starr, please. I can defend your room more easily than I can this hallway, if he decides to come back.”
Taking his outstretched hand, I was surprised how naturally my fingers entwined with his. I decided I missed him, too. “He won’t.” As soon as I felt my magic return, I threw up more wards. I leaned against my headboard while Puck sat beside me. “Start talking, mister, or I’ll ignore you for longer than a minute.” Not that I believed I could last more than five. Or that he needed to know my doubts.
It was hard to listen for the first few minutes. My head and my heart warred for control, whether to hurt or restore me. Puck kept a careful eye out, gauging my reaction as he went deeper into the story. I shivered when he got to the actual ambush, instead of the background Ash had informed me about our trio. He waited until I reassured him I was okay. I would have never pegged the trickster for being as careful as he was, especially when my memories of that night started to return. He was my reckless hunter, but he and Ash and everyone else did what they could to protect me. It was too bad my fate had always been to protect them instead.
The bargain is made.
I frowned and leaned forward. “I knew he broke the deal, but I didn’t realize how badly he ruined it.” I sighed.
His smirk was empty. “Your powers should have been enough to override a broken deal, and it makes no sense to me that you only gave us forty minutes.” He hadn’t finished the tale and I knew it. I just couldn’t place what he left out.
My pendant glowed; a flare of light appeared under his collar. I tugged at the newer cord hanging around his neck. The necklace was still similar to mine, the runes hidden in the platinum charm. I thought back to Ash’s mini stash and guessed this was part of what he had brought home. Or had been, before it melded with Puck's old necklace to form a second double pendant. Whatever else Ash took from Puck’s room in Arcadia did not seem important. The world fell away as my senses were overwhelmed with the amulet’s abilities. Abruptly, I knew.
You can order ice-boy around all you want, but I’m coming with you.
What else did you expect from me, little warrior? To stay at home and brood? That’s Ash’s job.
From the moment you walked into Faery, I knew my time at the Seelie Court was over. Suddenly I had a queen worthy of my service.
My bruised throat closed for an entirely different reason. Queen of Fate. I like the sound of that… As long as you know I won’t ever stop calling you little warrior, no matter how powerful you become on this crazy mission of yours. Not long after that single conversation, I’d given up my title. Puck liked it when I didn’t, but he was always biased when it came to me.
“Robin Goodfellow used to be as untouchable as I was.” The thought pretty much voiced itself. I hid my smile when he looked up in shock. “Don’t tell me you forgot?” It was hard to school my features into neutrality once more. Completely straight-faced, I went on: “You are mine, Puck.”
The trickster tried not to grin. “Are we okay?” he inquired softly.
Playing with his necklace, I failed to keep my emotions in check. “I never kissed you, did I?” Out of everything we had been through, I saw the truth behind that one fact. Quick kisses on the cheeks and forehead didn’t count. His breath came shallowly, attributing the nerve I'd struck.
“Why are you thinking about that?”
I dropped the amulet and framed his face in my hands. “I never got to say it back.” He narrowed his eyes. I remembered the last sentence he ever said to me, loud and clear, before Lokesh took me away. I pressed my lips to his cautiously. Pulling back, I smiled. “I love you, too.”
“You call that a kiss, little warrior?” He trapped me against him, crushing his mouth to mine. My skin crawled when his right hand slid from my cheek to my shoulder, but he was careful not to touch my neck. And I was enjoying myself too much to really care.
Drawing him down on top of me, I couldn’t keep hope from taking over. Puck held himself up with his hands on either side of my head, love written plainly on his face. “You know, for someone who claims to hate his life, I don’t think you should be this happy,” I laughed.
“I hope you know who’s responsible for it. Maybe you should thank her soon.”
The corner of my mouth quirked into a smirk. “Nah. Then she might get an idea and want to steal you from me.” I felt him shiver above me. “You don’t have a lot of time left, do you?” Already, I was working on the spell mentally.
Puck emitted a quiet growl, frustrated at whatever came to mind. “I should return to the manor, before the trods barely open for me.”
“You should stay here with me.” I pecked the tip of his nose and pushed him off. In the next instant, a golden tabby head was resting on my stomach.
It took me a long time to fall asleep when I had to get used to someone –– albeit a giant cat –– sleeping with me. Once I finally did, it was easy to let my senses roam. Astral projection, I thought mundanes called it. Whatever the case, I went to Ren first. We had our armies and bought some more time with Lokesh. Now we only needed the boys.
The next morning, I groaned when the sound of a truck leaving the street woke me up. I had planned on going to school until I slept through most of the evening as well as my early morning alarm. Technically, I could get there in time for third period and stay the rest of it to get credit for a full day, but… A glance sideways reminded me why I wasn’t inclined to do that. I reached to my dresser automatically and found the source of what woke me.
“Kishan?” I asked groggily, picking up the phone. “What’s up?”
“Are you coming home soon? Ren and I want to thank you in person.” I yawned. “We have eight hours now. Not sure what you did, but Kelsey promises she’s going to find the other pieces of Durga’s puzzle and get the goddess to break the rest of the spell.”
I rubbed at my face, eyes continuously drifting toward Puck’s sleeping form. “Give me another day to myself,” I responded. “I still have one more thing I need to figure out before I can face you guys again. And I wanted a week I'm not going to keep, anyway.”
“Okay.” Before we hung up, he asked, “Have you seen Puck? Ash says he left and hasn’t been here in a few days… since you went back alone, actually.” I told him no, and he said goodbye.
The golden tabby lifted his head with a wide yawn. I folded my arms across my chest. His bleary emerald gaze focused immediately. “Where did you go after I left, Goodfellow? ’Cause I hope to hell you didn’t follow me around all that time.” I refused to tell him that Ash was worried. Part of me thought that maybe it wasn’t even Ash but one of the other princes that wanted to know what happened. Unknown whereabouts on a trickster would freak me out, too.
“Don’t flatter yourself.” The hunter stood and stretched. “I was taking care of my own privileges in the mortal world.”
Drawing the blanket tighter around me, I closed my eyes. “Wake me up when it’s nighttime,” I murmured, still only half awake. Puck did nothing for several seconds, and then he pounced on me with the gracefulness of his tiger. “What do you think you’re doing?” I exclaimed, one step ahead thanks to Kishan. Plus, now that I knew who he was to me, I could read the excitement in his face as easily as I could Meghan’s or Kelsey’s.
“You got me more time.” Whatever barrier that kept him from kissing me in the past was gone now. He pecked my lips and grinned almost innocently. Almost. “I knew the bastard wasn’t strong enough to keep you down.”
Yawning again, if only because I was actually awake thanks to his weight, I rolled onto my stomach. “I still have a long way to go,” I admitted.
Puck ripped the covers from me. With the opposite of Summer heat, he sucked away the warmth in the room. I glared at him from the corner of my eye. My Unseelie affinity kept me from actually being cold, but I was far from comfortable and couldn’t even pretend to fall back to sleep like that. I grumbled something unintelligible to my old friend.
“If I'm not mistaken, you and I have a strategy to finalize, little warrior.”
There was no need to point out that the last time I came up with a plan on my own, I led our allies straight into an ambush. He leaned over me worriedly, sensing the pang that hit my chest. “Ash and Meghan are leaders until I go back to Faery. Let them handle military strategies.” I buried my face in my pillow. Maybe I should have let my memories stay blocked.
“No, you shouldn’t have.” Puck slid his arms under me and picked me up. I yelped. “Never think that, Starr. You belong here.”
Fear surged up my spine. “Put me down,” I ground out, doing my best not to tremble in his grip.
Quick to comply, Goodfellow paced to the other side of the room. “Crap, I forgot about that.” Vulnerable, he tugged at his hair. “I’m sorry. I thought you might be better this time around.” I stretched and looked at him quizzically. “We’re never going to get better, are we?”
“If I wasn’t a tiny bit better, you wouldn’t have been able to sleep in here with me last night, and I’d have pushed you away instead of kissing you.” I kept a cautious eye on him as he walked closer to the window, unable to maintain my tenuous trust even now.
A growl rumbled in his chest. “I won’t stay if you don’t want me to,” he offered. In his head, he was plotting ways to kill Lokesh without endangering me any more than I already was.
“Robin Goodfellow!” I snapped at him. His jewel-green eyes locked on mine. “I won’t let you face him alone. None of us will, because like you said before the ambush that was my freaking fault, we’re a team. Teams stick together.”
When he took a step toward me, I flinched at the unchanneled energy radiating dangerously from him. “He turned Oberon and Titania against us in the middle of the war. He cursed me, Ren, and Kishan in the hopes that we’d die in a more torturous way than anything he could do personally. He locked Ash into a life with Sage and Rowan that you freed him from previously. He stripped Kelsey of Durga’s gifts and therefore stole her powers. I watched him run Meghan into a demon realm and sic a vengeful Mab on her.” He inhaled a ragged breath. “None of that compares to everything he did to you personally, to try to get you out of the picture… or worse.” In a sudden frenzy, he searched my face.
“Stop taking it from me!” I traced a rune on the bed, silently calling for Ash. “The spell was meant to keep me in control. I fought it for years before you, in both timelines. You’re changing us both by stealing it.”
“Puck? Changing things he isn’t supposed to?” In the blink of an eye, Ash was stretching his legs on the bed beside me, leaning against the headboard. “I’m not surprised.”
The spell I had worn all my life, the same one Lokesh stripped away when I was on the verge of dying at his hands, returned to me in a flood of power. Puck gasped and lost the utter emotion he had shown since last night. “Ash…” I began hesitantly.
My dark faery continued to glare at Puck, who painstakingly slowly returned to his old trickster self. “I’m glad you finally learned what happened in the past, Starr, but you’re both insanely oblivious when you want to be.” As the balance returned, I leaned against him. Puck’s expression was blank, something I had always hated seeing. “You saved her from Lokesh this time, Goodfellow, but what about the next time? What if you altered too much of reality –– especially when you aren’t supposed to have that kind of power?” His own voice lowered to the start of a growl. “We promised each other not to tap that ability.”
“She changed the course of time,” Puck flashed back fiercely. “That promise was never made.”
Closing my eyes, I ignored the icy fire rushing through my blood. “I love you, Puck, but you won’t gain my favor by abusing our bond.” I poked Ash’s black chest armor without looking. “The same goes for you, princeling. Try not to take advantage of my friendship.”
Arm draped around my shoulders, Ash squeezed ever so slightly in reassurance. “I never have,” he reminded me.
“Oh, spare me!” the trickster snarled. “Why do you think the Erlking let me walk away from his clutches so easily? I’m some kind of misguided failure. Out of the, what, four beings in the whole universe that I’ve cared about, I’ve done enough to piss off all of them, got two killed, and nearly gave the same to the other two. I’m sorry that I can’t figure out what’s actually best for my best friends without a lot of trial and error.”
It took me a moment to realize he was the oldest one of my entire inner circle. Eyes still closed, I felt my brows furrow in thought. “All you ever knew was how to joke around and kill at Oberon’s command,” I mused aloud, suddenly unnerved.
“I finally figured things out for myself, and then I went and supported a plan that might have gotten us killed. If I had just let Ash talk you out of it, we could have had a different future than this one, still fighting the war we were so close to ending. I watched the bastard take you away from me, every time. And there was nothing I could do except trust you.” He bared his teeth at nothing. “I still trust you both! And all I get from it is more heartache.”
My eyelids snapped open. I glanced from him to Ash. “Then maybe it’ll be a good idea for us to be separated for a while.” The three pendants started to glow.
“How do you expect us to do that?” Puck demanded, already against the idea.
Shrugging, I did not wait as the plan merely came to me. “You can help Meghan with organizing a strategy. The two of you work better together than we ever could, anyway.” He opened his mouth to argue, an apology etched on his face; I swept on in a rush. “Ash, you can go to Tir Na Nog and help your brothers. Visit Arcadia if you have to. The sidhe should be ready to fight at any given moment.”
“For how long, exactly?” Ash asked. “You make it sound like we’re going into battle tomorrow.”
A new spell wove its way into my head, almost like a song. “Long enough for me to help Kelsey break the tigers’ curse,” I answered confidently.
When I snapped my fingers, they had no choice.