Somehow I fell asleep during my vigil. Several hours later, I woke up to the sense of somebody touching my crown. A shaky hand toyed with the diamond hanging down against my forehead. “Hey,” I yawned, pressing his hand to my cheek.
“You could have taken the bed,” he murmured.
I smiled and kissed his palm. “I didn’t feel like wrestling with a were-tiger who needed it more.”
“You need to crack your neck,” he observed quietly. I shrugged one shoulder, and some vertebrae moved. “See?” Puck twirled a lock of my hair around his index finger. He looked fine, but sounded drunk. “You should’ve taken the bed,” he echoed, managing to be distracting while my hand continued to cover his. “Maybe you wouldn’t have that knot in your back.”
Pulling his hand away, I tried to bite my grin yet couldn’t. “I’m fine, mister. You’re the one who’s been out of it for a while.” I sat on the bed next to him, the movement stretching the tense muscles in my back.
Goodfellow flashed the ghost of a smirk. “And yet I’m the one who came to first.” He sighed and shifted to get more comfortable. “I can’t even fathom how you thought I would stay behind. My own head scares me sometimes.” At least there were no obvious injuries on his face and neck anymore. His clothes were still torn, but the skin underneath was newly healed.
“You in general scare me.” Appraising him, I stood and took a too-big tee from the closet, as well as a pair of drawstring sweatpants that Ren had given to Kelsey, who then went ahead and gave it to me.
The pants I refused to help him with, yet his ribs were still sore and I had seen him and the others shirtless plenty of times. His back and sides were still a bruised mosaic, especially curling around his ribcage. It sparked a flame of anger inside me; I shoved it back, not wanting a repeat of the path of destruction I had made. I was careful to listen for him falling when I turned my back, but he collapsed on the mattress on his own accord. Settling down beside him once more, I realized belatedly I hadn’t gone to see my friends.
“What is it?” Puck’s hand still shook, but there was strength returning to his corded muscles. His skin was pulled tight over his knuckles.
I entwined my fingers with his. “The situations we keep getting into. We never have a break.”
Toying with my hand, he laughed harshly. “We have a break now, little warrior.” I rolled my eyes before laying my head on his collarbone. As true as that was, he needed to heal, and I was still mentally chaotic.
“How many more times are we going to fight?”
“Until those bastards are dead,” he answered literally. At my silence, he let out a breath. “Considering our rollercoaster? I hope not a lot.” I was about to prop myself on my elbow to meet his gaze when he growled. “Don’t think you’re moving anytime soon.”
Perfectly okay with that, I shifted just enough to bury my face in his neck. “I still hate you, you know.”
“I’m sure.” He released my hand. Rolling over to dislodge me, he wrapped both arms around my waist. “I don’t want to change back.” His whisper was laced with fear, as if I would leave the instant he did. A chill ran along my skin; I ignored it. “I’m used to being able to control what I am. This curse doesn’t leave any room for that… and I never know if my time will be taken from me.”
Breaking out of his hold, even a tiny bit to look at him, was probably not a smart idea. I felt the diamond press against my forehead still, even though I'd taken off the crown when I got up to get him clothes. “If I can find a way to separate you and the princes, I can probably tackle the curse in individual parts.” I breathed in the scent of Summer and leather and wilderness, something only one Seelie faery had. “I don’t want you to change, either, but you’ve been using a lot of time up lately.” And I was using a lot of magic to have visions instead of speaking telepathically.
A knock rapped on the door; I sat up in time for Ash to poke his head in. “You might want to come downstairs,” he greeted, silver eyes betraying nothing.
Puck struggled to push himself up. “No.” I gave him the smirk I perfected long ago before reaching for my crown again. “You stay here and rest. I can handle this.” Even though I had no idea what was going on… Puck grumbled something under his breath, probably cursing the two of us, and I slipped from the room at Ash’s shoulder.
“Hello, Starr,” Sage began when he saw me. He was dressed in the colors of the Unseelie Court, his wreath of ice still on his head. A familiar weight pressed on mine at the sight. “How is Goodfellow?”
I shrugged. “Resting.” I became hyperaware of the fact that neither Kelsey nor Meghan was here. Kishan and Ren hovered near the opposite door leading into the kitchen, which made a better escape route with Ash and me at the original entrance. “Is this good or bad news? Because I’m off duty for at least another day, likely more.” I hated those clothes. Seeing him dressed in the finery of Mab’s court always reminded me of how I had never truly freed him. Even in the past, he served Mab, whose orders had been to assist me until the battle was won. We all knew how that worked out.
“A bit of both. Mab caught Iron forces on the border of Tir Na Nog. Tiaothin and some other phoukas chased them off before they could even think to enter.” Ash chuckled at his once-friend’s need to wreak havoc. “Titania apparently had a similar visit, only she met with Machina behind Oberon’s back. It seems she’s ready to betray us like she did before.” I couldn’t help it when my left eyebrow arched. It was such a habit to help bite my tongue. Sage went on to explain: “Tansy, that young satyr who’s infatuated with Puck, approached Rowan about it on one of his hunts in the wyldwood. The Erlking returned and negated everything his queen said.”
For a second I was caught up on infatuated with Puck, but I soon snapped back into business. “So Oberon is upholding his pact with us this time?” I mused quizzically. “There’s a shocker.”
“There’s more,” Ash informed.
Nodding at his brother, Sage continued. “He renewed his alliance with the Hunters, and the Wolf himself responded to Oberon’s call to chase them out. Lokesh wasn’t seen at all when this happened, which begs the question of what he’s up to while Machina distracts us at home.” It was definitely half and half.
I thought about everything I knew, past and present. “If we launch an attack, we could be ambushed again,” I said, my voice wavering enough that Ash rested one hand on my shoulder. “But at the same time, if we keep waiting for them to come to us, they’ll keep amassing an army while we wear ourselves down.” I moved away from my dark faery’s touch, thinking of every option and every possible outcome I could. So much for having a break.
“Wait.” Kishan unhitched himself from the wall and walked over. “We were baited when they ambushed us, right?”
Ren stayed where he was. “Are you saying we should bait them?” There was consideration underlying his tone.
Tilting my head slightly, I scrutinized the younger Indian prince. His pirate gold irises were somehow darker than they had been before Kelsey’s capture. Literally darker, not more tired or anything of the sort. My mouth quirked wryly. “I like the idea, except for the fact that we just got out of a bad situation with them.”
“Of course, things are only going to get worse from here. We actually won a battle, something that hasn’t happened in a long time.” Ash had on his brooding face, the intensity reminding me of when I first met a trapped Winter prince. He lifted his gaze to mine. “Whatever you want to do, I’m going with you,” he vowed.
“I want another day to rest,” I admitted. “Ren.” Always a good soldier, he straightened at the authority in my voice. “I want you working on figuring out the best trap we could lay for them. No one attacks yet, unless a threat comes up and the only way out is force. I’ll help you after I recover some more.”
Cobalt gaze reflecting his need for justice, Ren dipped his head. Sage bowed low. “If you’ll excuse me, Rowan and I have our own war meeting with Mab.” I nodded, and he headed out. Ren soon followed to get started researching.
A muscle twitched in Kishan’s jaw as he considered some flaw. “We have everything here but the upper hand.”
“Hopefully we can get that, too.” It was going to be fun trying to explain this all to Puck. “Make sure the girls aren’t told too soon. They need their rest, too, not to worry about stuff we have under control.” Kishan mock-saluted me in a futile attempt to get me to relax; he was stiff as a board, too. As I headed for the staircase again, I heard Ash and Kishan discussing something about my friends.
The golden tabby’s ear twitched when I pushed open the door to my room. I leaned against the writing desk. Jewel-green eyes opening to narrow slits, Puck yawned and then shifted back.
“What did our princeling want?”
As I caught him up to speed, I continued analyzing everything I could, hoping I could actually help Ren once I reentered the fight. A growl rumbled in his throat. “We’re fine, Puck,” I reassured him, tired of those words. Of almost everything.
Opening his mouth to argue, he hesitated and apparently thought better of it. “You’re probably the best commander we could ask for,” he remarked instead. “And no matter how long I’m on bed rest for this, or however many times you prove you can take care of things, I’m going to be on the front lines protecting you.”
“You’re going to try,” I corrected.
The trickster sighed, head tilted against the bedframe. “Lokesh wants Kelsey for the heir she might have, Machina wants Meghan for her power, and you shouldn’t be dragged into any of this. No, we are not using you girls as bait.” No one suggested it, but it was most likely on all our minds. Puck glared at me in warning when I bit my lower lip. “Don’t try to be a martyr either, little warrior. You’re not going anywhere near them until the final battle… and hopefully not even then.” He flipped the blanket down.
Taking the hint, I crawled under the covers with him, despite neither of us needing any extra heat. “I’m doing what’s right for my allies. If that means I have to give up my life a second time, I will.” There was nothing that could keep me from doing it if I had to.
“Starr,” he snarled possessively, rolling over. I gazed up at him. Pain and determination warred on his face. “Where you go, I go, and that includes back in time. I’ve probably said or thought it a thousand times by now, but I won’t watch you disappear again. I need you to promise you won’t just burn out everything.”
Thinking of Ash, I shook my head. “I can’t make that promise, mister. It wouldn’t be fair to the rest of our friends, for one, and I will do what I must if it means keeping them safe.”
“This is why you and I argue constantly.” He had to return to his back when his arms began to shake under his weight. “You’re so frustratingly good sometimes.” Not exactly the reason I agreed with, but it was true.
Sleep eluded me for several hours. The golden tabby snored softly beside me, a faint purr cutting through the silence every few minutes. I slipped my arms around him and buried my face in his fur.
Is this really how you wanted your life to go? You belong fighting more than just those SOBs. Who says Puck is a good match for you? Your blood sings for war, not for love. Death is more your companion than life.Doing my best to block the voice in my head, the delusions it held, I squeezed my eyes more tightly shut against the sting of tears. I was too many things. One final battle, and then I was done. I had to be.