A sharp growl rumbled through my dreamless nap, tearing into it like thunder. I refused to open my eyes. Under my cheek, Ash shifted ever so slightly, just enough to get in a better position without completely disturbing me.
There was a second growl, cutting into my mind the way those wails did when we found the crowns. I jerked at the sound; Ash smoothed his hand over my hair reassuringly. Did he not hear it? Why was it so hard for me to wake up? Fear settled in my veins. If it had been Puck, I would have known, and so would Ash. My groggy mind had no idea what was going on.
“Starr!” the voice blasted into my mind.
Clearly hearing that, Ash twitched under me. “Starr…”
“I’m okay,” I replied softly. I cracked my eyelids open. What little light filtered through the room stung my eyes. “Where’s Puck?”
“Upstairs in his room, still sleeping,” he informed me. “Are you sure you’re alright? It seemed like you were having a nightmare for a minute there.” I locked gazes with him, not daring to move any more than that because my head already spun from the effort. He swallowed hard. “Do you want to go up to your room? You might be more comfortable, and I can make it pitch-black for you.”
A third growl vibrated in my ribs, low and deadly. “Moving hurts,” I told him, trying to convey that I didn’t like what was going on without explicitly saying it.
His silver gaze filled with understanding. “That’s what ice is for.” Winter glamour settled over me, and Ash carefully got to his feet, cradling me against his chest. I buried my face against his collarbone at the fourth growl I heard; it was quieter than the others, as if the creature was watching something fascinating. “You haven’t recovered at all, from what I can tell,” he murmured, aware of the splitting headache crashing throughout my skull.
“Nope,” I agreed. If anything, I felt more drained than I had before. “God, why are curses so painful?”
Even though he didn’t say it, I heard his sarcastic remark and glared at his neck. Ash chuckled slightly, nudging open my door. I sighed in relief as my mattress met my aching back. “I know it might not feel like it, but you’ve been out for a few hours,” my dark faery told me quietly, drawing shut the blackout curtains.
“When I can finally walk again, I’m going to this waterfall I know about.” I yawned wide. “I have a feeling it has properties I haven’t discovered yet. And if it’s not a magical healing place, it’ll still do me good with the mountain atmosphere.”
Silver gaze nearly glowing in the dimness, Ash nodded once. “Whatever you need to do. Do you want me to stay in here?”
As tempting as the offer was, I shook my head the slightest bit. “I think I’m good for now.” I shifted to get more comfortable, despite the blinding pain that ricocheted through me in the process. “If I need anything, I’ll reach you the same way I always have.” Only with less urgency, I added to myself at the memory of those times.
“I’ll be nearby.”
No sooner had he closed the door, footsteps retreating down the hallway, than it flew open again. I braced myself for it to hit against the wall and send daggers into my head, but that never came. Instead, it clicked equally softly to when Ash had shut it.
A golden tabby jumped onto the bed beside me. He settled his broad head next to my shoulder. I rolled onto my side and met his unblinking emerald eyes. “Nice to see you’re not a mindless beast,” I teased wearily. Puck huffed in answer, laying his tail across my waist. “Is that why I’m so worn out? I kept you from going into senseless mode?” With his head on his paws, he blinked to say yes. I threaded my fingers through his shoulder fur. “You’re worth it,” I whispered. “Don’t ever think otherwise.” Before I could fully drift off, I peered at him through slitted lids. “Was that you growling earlier? Or, at least, supposed to be you?” It would explain the warning note in the sound. But whoever shrieked my name… they had a voice I didn’t remember.
Puck touched his nose to my chin. His power was limited, too, since there was only so much I could try to keep for him.
Without the strength to fight his compulsion, I slid into an easy sleep. Another growl woke me up several hours later, although this one was real, not just in my head. I looked down at Puck, who now sat protectively at my feet. A shadow drifted from one far corner to the other, never moving closer to the edge of the bed and the sentry that guarded there.
“Hey,” I greeted. Recognition flooded my slowly-recovering senses. The shadow froze, almost in fear. My pendant began to glow to take the dimness from the room, enough so that I could see clearly. The gremlin chittered unhappily at being thrown into a spotlight of its own. “You swore fealty to Meghan, right?”
There was a stream of unintelligible, monosyllabic words. Puck bristled, yet I could tell he didn’t know what the thing was saying. Neither did I, so I hoped I was right.
“She’s not here,” I said calmly. “Go check the library. She’s usually in the center of the house, around there.”
The door opened and closed so quickly I didn’t even see the gremlin leave. Puck turned and leaned back on his haunches, his expression focused. Like a bad phone call, his voice filtered into my head: Who… was that?
I shifted my weight, pushing myself up so I could lean on the headboard. “A friend,” I answered simply. Puck rolled his eyes. “I don’t remember. He and some other gremlins always stayed close to Meghan during the final days. I’m not sure where they went during the ambush.” I winced after I mentioned it.
Settling next to me again, Goodfellow lowered his head onto my stomach. Are you feeling any better? he asked, telepathy growing more normal.
“Eh,” I responded convincingly. “I’m not dead, so there’s that.”
Don’t say that. You’re strong enough to get through this –– all of it. He pressed a heavy paw to my thigh. I shook my leg to knock him off. It bothers me that I can’t yell at you right now for doing that.
Fixing Ren? “It wasn’t exactly my choice. The magic just kind of happened.” I knew he feared the crown using me as its conduit, instead of the other way around. Ancient power like the magic stored in my talisman had an interesting way of responding to use, and it happened once in the past. “Both of them are freed, and you’ll be back to normal soon, too. I’m not going to apologize for doing something that was bound to happen anyway.”
I wasn’t asking for an apology. He drifted into silence.
“Puck, I’m fine. All of us are. Stop being the worrier of the group. It’s freaky.” It was, but I smiled to take the bite out of my words all the same.
Finally, his hesitant response: You’re going to get hurt sooner rather than later, if you keep doing this.
My muscles ached for the waterfall. Puck narrowed his eyes, and I tried to tell him to stop using glamour he didn’t have. Or I would have, had my jaw not clenched in pain. He had been Oberon’s right-hand faery at some point. I had to trust in his abilities.
Gratitude flooded through me as he managed to bring us to the place that might as well have been sacred, at this point. I felt sick when the dizzying teleportation faded, but I quickly recovered my senses. My heart sank when I looked at Puck.
Unblinking emerald eyes bright with feral instinct, the golden tabby raked his gaze over me appraisingly. I had been confident in his ability not to hurt me the last time, when it was the curse’s doing that changed him. Yet this –– the affinity I craved, the gift I never asked for –– this was his own choice, to make me feel better. Even if he felt worse once he returned.
“Puck?” I ventured softly. The bottom tips of his fangs poked out. I forced myself to emit a breathy, relaxed laugh. “Come on, mister, we’ve been through this once already. You won’t do anything to hurt me.”
All of his teeth were bared in the next instant. I winced at the silent snarl. Maybe this time he would.
“Goodfellow, please stop posturing. There’s no one here to…” I knew, all at once, what I could do to test him. This grove held my magic, although tapping into it was so much harder when I was still so drained. The created sound of a twig snapping made me loose a breath. My waterfall, I thought, knowing I’d made the right decision to come here to heal, among the other times I had come. I turned in the direction of my illusion with a grin. “Ash.”
“Starr,” he replied, smiling back. “I was hoping I’d find you here.”
The growl that ripped from Puck’s throat was deeper and more threatening than any others from before. It might have sparked a ghostly flicker of fear inside me, too.
As soon as Ash reached me, brushing his fingers against my own, there was a crack of lightning in the peaceful grove behind me. The voice that spoke was not someone I knew. He bit off each word sharply. “Get your hands off of her.” I faced him once more, the illusion of Ash stepping even closer. There was no trace of the smirk I had grown so used to on Puck’s face. Instead, his expression was filled with hatred, fueled no doubt by primal instincts. “You are not welcome here,” he snarled, unsheathing his long knives.
Ash tilted his head ever so slightly, a blank mask on his face. “Do you even know who she is?”
“Not necessary to,” the tiger flashed back. “She and I belong here without any trespassing filth like you.” For a moment, I was nervous he would shift back and leap at my illusion. As it was, I didn’t like the dagger he pointed our way.
My stone-cold heart fractured a bit. “Puck,” I said quietly.
The illusion vanished. Goodfellow bared his teeth at me. “What did you do?” I backed away as that growl wrapped around me this time.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, more out of grief than fear. “I’m sorry, mister, I didn’t want….” I raked a hand through my hair in frustration. “I didn’t ask for any of this!”
Goodfellow winced, pressing his lips together. Otherwise, he ignored my reaction. We stared at each other, and I changed track so that I backed toward the chutes. Diving into the mist, I was surprised when my clothes vanished on contact with the water, replaced with my bathing suit. My glamour still looked after me, even though it was free to replenish the land, even though I was so drained a human could kill me.
For a moment or two, I stayed submerged, watching the light flicker and dance in the too-clear water. The cascade was just as deafening as it was before I got used to it above the surface, only this time I couldn’t get it out of my head. It did not help that the blood roared in my ears, a vicious symphony that drove me mad.
“I’m the one who should be sorry,” the beast called out when my head resurfaced, stopping me from ducking under and away from his gaze. He wore Puck’s face, but there was still no apology written there, nothing to prove that he was sincere. “Who are you, love? You were willing to face me down until that friend of yours showed up.”
Because you started being an ass I don't recognize, I mused silently, afraid of him for the first time ever. Maybe I would have felt better knowing I had some protection, which I didn’t, or that he would be back to normal soon. I mean, I had drained him trying to keep him from this temporary fate.
I refused to say anything. My mouth would have gone on and on if I did.
“Don’t give me that glare. If I remembered, wouldn’t you think this would be easier on both of us?” Sure, there was a certain strain on his brow that reminded me my trickster was still in there. I was too busy thinking about the daggers he had yet to sheathe, the low growl I could hear in his chest even now. Goodfellow knelt at the edge of the water, putting the blades away and reaching for me. I swam under.
A real growl, not just a memory, sounded in my ears. This one held frustration, though. Waves rippled along the surface of the pool, but all I felt was a faint movement in the water as the splash hurtled toward the cascades. His clothes had changed, too. Despite me never thinking about seeing him in anything other than pants, I was happy to see him clad in something different. Even if my heart still thundered nervously.
Rising long enough to take a breath, I dove and swam deep enough to avoid too much force from the waterfall. My human abilities strained against what I wanted to do; I foolishly pushed myself harder. Needless to say, I broke the surface gasping for air.
“Starr.” I spun to face him, treading water easily. Puck hovered near the chutes themselves, trying to give me as much space in this tiny alcove as he could. He flashed half of one palm, the other half obscured in mist. “Before you ask, I still don’t remember. But I know I scared you… and I don’t ever want you to be afraid.”
It hurt to see him like this, to know he’d chosen my recovery over what I had gifted him. “How’d you guess my name?”
“You don’t hear the land whispering it, do you?” He dared to swim closer. I did nothing to stop him. “This place loves you, sings to you. It’s trying to heal something I don’t understand. The melody stopped long enough so that the life force behind it could yell at me for terrifying you.” If I looked anywhere but his face, I might be inclined to drown myself, rather than do something stupid. “Starr,” he murmured again, near enough he could touch me if he wanted. “A little warrior with a forest of protection.” Nothing. No warmth filled those two heart-wrenching words. “I know who you are, love. I know I’ve caused you pain. But I have to ask: Who am I to you?” He let the question drop casually, as if it wouldn’t hurt me more to hear it.
I closed my eyes, found a foothold in the rock wall that vibrated with the waterfall’s force, and leaned into the farthest corner of the alcove. Puck shortened the distance I’d inadvertently added. “You’re mine,” I rasped, my voice breaking terribly. I knew this was not like the other times, that I wasn’t powerful enough to make my universal key work.
He brought me here to recover, and now we were both broken.
Out of everything today, I would rather his silence in my room, not quite accepting the apology he didn’t want to hear. I could hold my breath longer as I skimmed the water’s surface, returning to the bank and the forest that surrounded us. A tiger joined me a while later.
“You shouldn’t have done what you did, mister,” I murmured sleepily, beginning to doze in the sun. I hadn’t gotten my clothes back yet, and the warmth of the clearing felt too good to pass up. I peeked at him out of the corner of my eye. The golden tabby was curled on his side with his back facing me. “I wish you stayed with me,” I added around a yawn.
An hour or two after that comment, I sensed rather than saw Puck shift, half-asleep with the sun on my back. He came to sit beside me, and I was selfishly pleased to see his clothes weren’t returned, either. Pretending to drift off again, I waited. “I wanted to claim you,” he muttered, not quite under his breath. I rolled onto my side and propped my elbow under me, holding my head. The beast’s emerald eyes stared out at the falls. “When we first arrived here, I knew nothing else except my need for you –– and then that thing showed up. Whether real or illusion, I thought about him so much as brushing against you and lost it. Had you not been next to him, I might have attacked the damn thing.” He sighed, gaze going distant.
Part of me wilted in relief. If he recognized it, even the slightest bit, as an illusion, there was still hope. “He’s my friend. I wouldn’t have been happy if you lunged for him.”
“I haven’t seen you happy yet,” he reminded me softly.
Mostly because there was nothing to be happy about. “Why didn’t you?” I whispered, a hint of my fear returning.
Eyes gleaming like uncut jewels, he looked over me with that same hunger I’d noted earlier. Then he shook his head. “You don’t like that kind of stuff,” he observed, still in that quiet, calculating way his tiger had.
“You’re right.” I stretched my hand up to remove some blades of grass from his red hair. My fingers ached in protest as I withdrew them. “We’re both sick when we shouldn’t be.”
Watching me merely shift my weight, Puck seemed to be losing it again. “Please tell me we’re a team,” he breathed, a tremor making his growl somehow gentler. “Please tell me I’m not driven mad every day by someone so untouchable.”
“Well, you are,” I responded, stretching. “Just like you make me crazy every day. We always return our favors.” I mentally cursed myself off. Idiot –– stupid, foolish, babbling idiot. God, I wanted him back to normal. I would gladly trade my powers in forever if it meant keeping the trickster I knew and loved.
And then there was the matter of his curse…
Visibly struggling not to look anywhere but my face, Puck leaned into the breeze of mist that engulfed us and closed his eyes instead.
Opportunity slammed into my desire. I reached for his face and pulled him down to me. Stopping close enough that our breaths mingled, I smiled wickedly. “Give me one good reason why I should believe you’ll stay away.”
“That’s not possible.” He closed the remaining distance between us.
Fire surged inside of me, different from my magic. It might have been glamour, or it might have been a very human reaction to Puck’s equally hot kiss. I thought about pushing him onto his back, but before I could, he rolled me over and pinned me, lips never leaving mine.
Hands tightening on my hips, he broke away and looked down at me. I was used to his muscles coiling in battle, but the way they tightened along his back now were a warning. I ran my hands toward his shoulders anyway. I wanted the trickster so badly my mind wouldn’t see beyond the beast he currently was.
“I can’t, Starr,” he panted, weighing down on me. I was surprisingly okay with it. His hand cupped my cheek, toying with a lock of my still-damp hair. “If I do, I’ll hurt you somehow. I’m not who you think I am.”
Before I could protest, he was gone.
Grumbling, I summoned my clothes to replace my bathing suit and headed home.