Probably what shocked me the most was that Goodfellow stayed with me the whole time I healed in the pool. At first the water surrounding me was red with blood, but the longer I swam, the clearer the surface became. I refused to think about what a strange rollercoaster the entire day had been. Or, rather, most of my life. Ignoring the tiger that curled up on the bank helped ease some of the ache inside me.
I needed to get my act together. Invading Tir Na Nog was the last straw in Ash’s, Sage’s, and Rowan’s eyes. Ren and Kishan had been ready to go to war since I returned alone from my other more recent visit to the chutes; anything to help me free Puck. And then there was the slight fact that I wanted to get this over with before foolish Titania could betray us again.
For a final life-or-death battle, I couldn’t be a stupidly moody, brooding teenage girl like I had been for over half a week.
Still, I dragged myself from the pool with a heavy heart. On the bank, I sat with my back to the beast with Puck’s face. No matter who I used to be, I was still young now, and crazy situations like this just weren’t normal. I figured I had every right to brood for a while longer.
Heat brushed my skin as Puck shifted. He wrung his shirt in his hands, all traces of the injuries I saw earlier gone. I always knew him to be active, yet I had never seen restlessness like this. “Can you please talk to me, Starr?” he asked softly.
Thinking over fighting strategies in my head, I drew my legs to my chest. I hadn't done that in a while, either, considering how much of a habit it had once been. “There’s nothing to talk about,” I grumbled, not looking at him. I refused.
A smirk hinted at his voice. Something stabbed my heart. “There’s a universe full of things to talk about.” His finger ghosted down my spine. I arched against his touch. “I wanted to ask you about my change, actually.”
“What about it?” I demanded, stiffening even more.
Goodfellow gently turned me to face him. I silently cursed myself for not having glamour to protect me from the wildness I saw in the emerald depths. Even he could be an enemy, with his current lack of memories. “I can see the hope in your face every time you look at me. You don’t bother hiding your feelings; I think because a part of you hopes the old me will be back in the next moment. But you have to know that’s unlikely. Every damn time, I watch your hope vanish into nothingness, shutting me out.” I stared at him balefully. “I wanted to know what you miss so badly that you’re willing to turn against me.” Sorrow darkened the familiar jewel-green irises.
“I’m not––” I trailed off. That was exactly what I had begun doing. “Do you remember the curse at all, Puck?” He shook his head. I forgot how to breathe for a minute. “You saved our best friend’s life once, and in turn, you received the curse that was meant for him. I’ve broken a couple parts of it already, on Ren and Kishan. You’re the one suffering the backlash, ’cause you’re the one who was tied a little too deeply into it.”
The beast leaned backward onto his hands. “I knew I wasn’t like this before,” he muttered under his breath.
Why did this have to be my job? Oh, right. “You and I were really close. I’m sorry if you feel like I’m casting you out, but it’s hard to see you look so normal and know th-that I couldn’t save you.” My greatest fear, my deepest regret.
His hand slid over the arm guard that hadn’t come off yet, despite my hours in the cascades’ water. My skin prickled under the ice. “Why did you save me, anyway, Goodfellow? Last impression I got of you, you wanted nothing to do with me.”
“I ran from you a few days ago because of the different vibes I got every second I was near you. I was terrified of hurting you.” He lifted his gaze from the arm guard to meet my eyes. “I heard you when they grabbed you from Ash. I don’t remember much of what I was before, but I swear I’ve never run that fast in my entire life. All that made sense to me was that I couldn’t let them touch you, even if I ended up being the one to hurt you someday.” Before I could say anything, he swept forward and kissed me.
Longing and grief warred inside me. I didn’t have the strength to move us either way, but when I leaned back, he came down with me. Neither one of us was the same.
Digging my fingers into his shoulder blades, I stopped him from jumping up as soon as he pulled away. “Either you and I figure out where the hell to go from here, or you leave and never come back. Not even when you know I’m in trouble.” I traced the line of his cheekbone with my thumb. “I’m as good as human. My pain tolerance isn’t like yours and the other fey’s. Humans can die of a broken heart, and I don’t have the kind of time you do to move on and forget.”
“You’re not someone I can forget, love.” He pecked the tip of my nose. “But while we’re making conditions, either you try to see beyond the fact the trickster you know is gone, or I’ll stay out of your way for the rest of whatever life you have left.”
I can’t give you up! my mind shrieked. Puck’s eyes flashed in a way that reminded me of how he dealt with my amnesia, which seemed like forever ago by now.
Dropping my hand from his face, I wrapped both arms around his neck. “You’ll heal in time,” I reassured him. Hypocritical in and of itself, considering I didn’t believe I was going to get any better. Ever. “I have every intention on seeing this curse broken, even if it breaks me to free you.” I nudged him sideways, and he rolled off me easily. Looked like I was going to get my heart shattered a second time.
“So,” he began, snapping back into general mode. “What’s the next invasion plan?”
Just like that, the two of us fell into an easygoing military partnership. For only a second in the grand scheme of things, I forgot about my drained existence, about the curse that kept Puck locked up. Battle strategy was somewhat relaxing for me, when talking only in theory. And the beast didn’t have the same hang-ups about discussing it with me as Puck had.
We had another invasion planned in a matter of minutes, along with multiple backup plans. I returned to the manor with him this time.
Only to find the land deadly quiet. From our safety under the tree line, I could tell the house was ravaged.
Puck went still beside me. “Who would do such a thing?” he growled. Two forces flickered equally in his green eyes, neither gaining ground on the other. “She did her best not to make enemies with those who knew… and we never showed anyone…” His fists clenched at his sides.
“The others aren’t here,” I commented, trying to snap him out of a darkness I did not like. “Maybe they don’t know about this yet.”
With a shaking hand, he pointed at tracks not far off from us. “They knew. They escaped, thankfully.” I couldn’t help the gratitude that roared through me when I saw the clarity in his emerald gaze. Even the slightest bit, my trickster had returned. “Come on, little warrior. We should get out of here while we have the chance.”
“Fine by me, except where do you expect us to go? I don’t have anything to help protect us, we’re short on any bargaining chips, and we have no idea where the others sought refuge. Or if maybe we should wait before joining them.”
“Just follow me, then,” he growled, not wholly himself yet. His fingers entwined with my own. “We’re going someplace safe before we figure out what else to do.”
As we headed in the direction of one of the borders, I glanced over my shoulder at the destroyed manor. It had been the source of so many memories for Ash and Puck both, my safe house, Kelsey’s and Meghan’s training grounds. Hatred sparked a fire inside me. It was a dull spark, not the inferno I was used to, but it was still something. Unsure of where we were going, I kept pace with Puck. If he could recover in the blink of an eye, hopefully I did, too.
Preferably not under the same circumstances, though.
Walking alongside him, I realized how much of a lie that was. He was my trickster, sure, but he was also the Seelie jester whose pranks had turned deadly –– who had relished in the pain they brought. Even stuck in his own head, I’d never been afraid of the mindless beast. Now I wasn’t sure if I was afraid for him, or of him.
“Goodfellow,” I murmured as soon as I recognized some of the forest. His eyes shot sideways at me for the briefest moment. I felt starved of something important. I raised my voice. “Puck, Arcadia isn’t safe for me.”
That semi-familiar growl rumbled deep in his chest again. “It is when you stay close to me,” he snapped.
Cringing at the harshness of his tone, I wondered, And if your former king has decided to no longer absolve you for everything? The lady of the Summer Court suddenly likes you, right? Everyone knew she hated me… and all of my inner guard.
Not to mention that other than passing forces to help us fight against our opponents, the last time I saw Summer fey was when Ash and I ran from the bounties we suddenly found on our heads. Puck’s hand slid from mine, and I did my best not to seem as vulnerable as I felt.
Voices shuddered through the Hedge, but Puck led the way through with perfect confidence. I recognized what general direction we were going, although I wouldn’t be able to find my way alone anytime soon. Eventually, we came out to the wooden door I’d rushed from last time. It looked as undisturbed as the first moment I saw it.
Ignoring the sounds that seemed to have followed us through the corridors, Puck slipped through the back door into his room. I breathed a sigh of relief when I closed it behind us. “You don’t have anything to be scared about,” he muttered, searching through his drawers.
“Don’t I?” I retorted, frustrated that his compassion was nowhere to be found. And that I'd been in this position once, a sidhe searching through drawers and all, with Ash. “Last time I was here, I nearly died.”
The look he gave me was full of disbelief. “The way I heard it, you drained yourself –– again –– and still got out before They caught up to you. That’s not almost dying, not unless you faced Them in battle.” He slammed one drawer shut. A triple braid, made from nine different colored cords, hung from his hand. “I don’t have a lot of time left, little warrior, and I need to see Oberon before the day’s out.” His expression asked for permission he might not listen to anyway.
“First, don’t say it if you’re only trying to change my mind about something.” The nickname was the last thing that held any memory of what we once were. “Second, you’re going to end up visiting Oberon whether or not I know about it. I’d prefer you didn’t do it behind my back, but at this point I don’t think you care about my opinion.”
Keeping my mouth shut, I stared at nothing in particular to the right of him, forcing myself to be distant. The braid had to have come from the owner of the mansion. While I hadn’t been all that jealous before, I now envied her for her connection to Puck. Bond or not, we had split from each other. He would do whatever, regardless of leaving me alone in a place where people wanted me dead just as much as they wanted to help me.
The trickster sighed and closed the distance between us. “I will never stop caring about your opinion, little warrior.”
“Better,” I sighed, my instincts betraying me. So much for staying mad.
His perpetual smirk played at his lips. A chaste kiss, and then he had moved to the door. “Stay in here while I’m in Court, okay? Not many people can find their way through my part of the Hedge, so this is the safest place for you.” He winked before ducking out.
I would have stayed there even without his warning. There was enough hatred left on his face that I knew the attack on the manor had damaged him more than he cared to admit. Although covered in the lights of summer, the Seelie faeries were equally cutthroat to their Winter counterparts. And technically, I was a human in their midst, magic or no.
Music drifted to my ears through the gaps in the briars. I looked toward the densely-packed thorn walls, straining to hear. A lilting melody wrapped around me, and I shook my head to clear the fuzziness. Before I could stop myself, my hand rested on the door handle, ready to open this temporary sanctuary to the harp’s siren song. I fought the urge to turn the knob and lost.
“Starr?” I was vaguely aware of Tansy’s voice cutting into the sweet chords that washed over me.
A small yet powerful body knocked into me, snapping me out of the music-induced daze. “What the hell?” I demanded. The song continued as if it hadn’t been intended to entrance me. Hazel hair and matching eyes gleamed up at me in challenge. My feet turned toward the source of the music. “Go away, servant,” I growled, the strongest I’d sounded since I was drained of my magic. As Puck pointed out, again.
The satire pushed me back once more. “No. Starr, if you go to them, they’ll win.” She had orders, I realized. Puck wanted an extra layer to make sure I remained where I was.
“Let them win, then,” I replied, forcing my way past. Strength that could not have been my own shoved her away from me, and I continued to follow a trail I had never been on before. The Hedge parted to let me through, curling and blooming almost in time with the music. I dove headlong into that trance yet again.
Only a small part of me realized how unlikely it was that I would have otherwise responded to faery music. As beautiful as it was, some of my training consisted of maintaining control of my own will; faery music was like a drug, taking that away.
“Wine?” a humanoid fey with a golden aura offered. I shook my head. Rules in the faery realms stressed not accepting any food or drink from them. Her pointed ears seemed to prick, listening for sounds I couldn’t hear beyond the music within this clearing. How long had I walked for, to get here? “Come now, child. There’s nothing wrong with the wine.” Her voice was a melody in itself. I lost the fight for my control once more, focusing solely on her unearthly eyes. “Trust me, pet, it will wipe your stress from this world.”Against my better judgment, I drank.