“You’re getting careless!” Ren snapped at me, plowing through my left side. I staggered back at the force of his bow-staff knocking into me. He leveled the tip at my neck; I swallowed hard. “Take a break, Starr, and get your head back over your shoulders.”
I sheathed my swords indignantly. “I’m trying!” I retorted.
Ren’s blue eyes were unfeeling pools of ice. “You were, at the beginning. Now you’re thinking about God knows what. If I had been an assassin, I would’ve killed you by now.”
“Yeah, well…” I trailed off, mind drifting again.
The Indian prince growled in the back of his throat, only enough to snap me out of it. It had been a week since Kishan was freed, but he had spent most of that time figuring out how his tiger form got trapped into his faery ring. The nymph I’d gotten it from said he could keep it, even gave me a second one to give Ren when the time came. I had basic magic, things that talented humans could do, and even my strength had abated since then. I trained almost constantly with Ren or Sage in the hopes we could speed up my endless recovery. There was nothing to prove it, yet I secretly thought Ren used our sessions to get back at me for taking so long.
A wave of glamour surged through my veins. Ren sensed it and grinned devilishly. “Come on, Highness,” he taunted.
“Wait!” I exclaimed as he came after me with a heavy broadsword. I dodged his initial lunge before rushing away from him.
Running earned me another growl of warning. “Fight me!”
In a heartbeat, I tore my blades from their sheaths and whirled on my heel to face him. Ren crashed into me. All three swords vibrating from the hit. I pushed him back, then took off for the other side of the training room.
Since the day Kelsey had left the faery ring in the open, Ren always had it on when I saw him. As I sprinted across the vast expanse of the room, I wasn’t sure why I noticed that.
The prince came barreling in my wake. He shifted midair and leaped the remaining distance between us. Unnerved but unafraid, I turned to face him. I would not lose again. Cutting the air in front of me in an X, I half-expected them to meet his sharp claws.
A second collision never happened. Shaking from the effort of whatever did just happen, I collapsed to the floor. Bones popped loudly as Ren shifted back, blue gaze wide with shock. Usually his transformation was so seamless. He dropped to the ground beside me, one arm draped around my shoulders. I pressed against him and heaved for breath.
“What did you do?” he whispered, as if I might break.
It honestly felt like I would. “I have no idea,” I rasped. “I knew you wouldn’t hurt me, but I lost focus and didn’t realize it was you when I ran.”
Ren traced a finger across my trembling shoulder. “I push you because hardly any of our friends will. You have to know that.” He waited until I had gained control of my shuddering muscles to sit in front of me. “I’m sorry I scared you, Starr. But I’d be lying if I said that blast of power wasn’t the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.” He knew from experience how easily I could be lost to my own world.
“Did I do anything to you?”
The gratitude on his face shocked me. “You broke my curse.”
“No way.” I straightened at that. There was a softness in the smile he flashed me, the kind I only ever saw him give Kelsey. It took a minute for me to remember we had actually been close friends once. “I’m so happy for you, Ren!”
His smile widened. “Hey, you were the one that did it.” He stood and reached a hand down to me. I accepted his help in getting up, the muscles in my legs protesting. “See? It does wonders if someone is as hard on you as I am.” He held me steady until I was sure I could walk on my own.
I laughed. “Considering neither of us knows what really just happened…” I drawled. He fixed a fake glare on me, unable to hold it for longer than a few seconds. I laughed again. “Whatever you say, mentor,” I teased.
“Let’s get you where you can rest.” My body protested with varying flares of pain when I tried to walk. Ren’s taunting grin turned into one of encouragement. “I don’t expect you to be able to do much of anything for the next few days, Starr, much as I know you’ll want to.”
Even shrugging hurt, at least until the muscles stretched in my shoulders. “I feel like I’ve been run over by four eighteen-wheelers and a freight train,” I told him in all honesty.
Ren looped an arm around my waist. “Then I guess it’s a good thing you only have to break one more.” What he didn’t know was that it didn’t ache nearly this much when I freed Kishan. I wasn’t about to tell him that, either. At least things were stretching faster than then.
“Starr?” Ash met us in the living room. Ren had decided to be chivalrous and piggy-back me down the stairs, instead of risking a misstep. “You’re not physically hurt, right?”
I settled on a lump of couch pillows on top of the cushions, my legs thrown over the arm of the couch. “Just drained,” I answered quietly. Ash squished between me and the remaining space, his thigh helping to pillow my head as well. I smiled up at him. “Ren is officially the High Prince again.”
Silver eyes flickered between me and the brute. “Congrats,” he said earnestly. Ren dipped his head acknowledgement. Ash brushed a lock of hair from my face. “Have you checked on Puck yet, if that’s the case?” His voice was uncharacteristically soft.
“I can feel him. He’s sleeping… and hopefully he stays that way until we can both recover.” I turned my face so that my nose grazed his hip. “I can barely get up right now, let alone take care of a brainless tiger who only knows he doesn’t like you boys anywhere near me.” I sighed in relief as Ash’s inhuman chill drove the soreness from my limbs.
His finger moved across my temple. “Thank you for taking care of her, Ren,” my dark faery added dismissively. Ren gave my hand a quick squeeze before disappearing to another room in the house. I closed my eyes against Ash’s abdomen. “You’re pushing yourself too hard,” he murmured almost absently, drawing a gentle line down my cheek.
Smirking, I laughingly asked, “What makes you think that?” I was beyond ready to fall asleep on top of him. Meghan could question it all she wanted –– later.
“God, I wonder,” he responded sarcastically, although there must have been some truth to it for him to say as much. Or he wasn’t finishing what he wondered specifically, to get away with that. I wouldn’t be surprised either way.
I let the remaining tension ease in my muscles. “Even when I was strictly human, I don’t remember feeling this weak,” I commented.
His hand lifted from my face. “Because even when you were charmed into not having powers, your abilities always protected you,” he mused in a whisper. “There’s close to nothing left to protect you now, at least until you heal from the strain.” There was a long pause.
Although I knew what he meant, I muttered, “I have you.” Sleep pulled at me like a tide.
Ash chuckled. “Very true, my dear friend. Now get some rest.” He bent awkwardly to peck my forehead. “I don’t plan on moving until you want me to.” Of course not, I thought, breathing in the distinct mix of frost and wilderness and pure mountain air. The perpetual scent of the wyldwood clung to both the boys, making them uniquely their own, among other things.
“…love you, Ash,” I murmured around a yawn.My dark faery probably was not smiling, all things considered, but I could still hear the contentment in his voice. “I love you, too.”