“They don’t freak me out,” I said, grateful for the change of subject.
“Riiiight, you just sleep with your light on to scare away roaches.”
His comment made me smile. Not because he was right, but because it reminded me of another time, a simpler time, when all I had to worry about was homework and school and keeping up with the latest movie trends. When Robbie Goodfell and I could sit on the couch with a huge tub of popcorn and watch a marathon of Friday the 13th movies until the sun came up.
I wondered how much I’d missed in the time I’d been gone.
When I didn’t answer, Puck snorted and shook his head. “Fine. Watch this.”
And he made a quick gesture with his hand. The air shimmered, and the twisted corpses lying around the room turned into piles of branches. “Better?”
I nodded, though I knew it was only an illusion. The dead fey were still there, beneath the faery glamour. Out of sight, out of mind didn’t quite work for me, but at least it kept Puck from asking too many hard questions.
For a little while, anyway. “So, Princess,” he began, once a cheerful fire crackled in the center of the room. I didn’t know how he’d started it, but I’d learned not to question such things, in case it turned out to be an illusion and I only thought I was getting warm. “It seems I’ve missed a lot since I’ve been gone. Tell me everything.”
I gulped. “Everything?”
“Sure!” He sat down on a quilt, leaning back comfortably. “Like, did you find Machina? Did you ever get your brother back?”
“Oh.” I relaxed a bit and sat down beside him. “Yeah. Ethan is safe. He’s home, and that stupid changeling is gone for good.”
“What about Machina?”
I bit my lip. “He’s dead.”
Puck must’ve noticed the change in my voice, for he sat up and put his arm around my shoulders, pulling me close. I leaned into him, feeling his warmth, taking comfort in his nearness. “I’m sick of this place,” I whispered, feeling like a little kid, as my eyes burned and the world went fuzzy. “I want to go home.”
Puck was silent for a moment, just holding me as I leaned against him, fighting back tears. “You know,” he said finally, “I don’t have to take you back to the Summer Court. If you want, I can take you back to your world. If you really want to go home.”
“Would Oberon let me go?”
“I don’t see why not. Your magic has been sealed off. You’d be like an ordinary high school student again. Mab wouldn’t consider you a threat anymore, so the Unseelie would probably leave you alone.”
My heart leaped. Home. Could I really go home? Back to Mom and Luke and Ethan, back to school and summer jobs and a normal life? I missed that, more than I realized. I felt a bit guilty for ditching the plan to get the scepter back, but screw it. Ash didn’t want me around. My contract with him was over, and I’d paid my dues to the Unseelie Court. Our deal said nothing about me staying in Winter.
“What about you?” I asked, looking up at Puck. “Weren’t you ordered to bring me back to Summer? Won’t you get in trouble?”
“Oh, I’m in hot water already.” Puck grinned cheerfully. “I wasn’t even supposed to let you go after the Iron King, remember? Oberon will skin me alive for that one, so I really can’t dig myself any deeper.”
His tone was light, but I closed my eyes, guilt tearing at me. It seemed everyone I cared about was getting hurt, risking so much, just to protect me. I was tired of it; I wished I had my magic back, so that I could protect them in return.
“Why?” I whispered. “Why do you hang around? You and Ash could’ve died today.”
Puck’s heartbeat sped up under my fingers. His voice, when it came, was very soft, almost a whisper. “I would’ve thought you’d’ve figured that out by now.”
I looked up and found our faces inches apart. Twilight had deepened the room to shadow, though the carpet of flowers glowed brighter than ever. Firelight danced within Puck’s eyes as we stared at each other. Though he still wore a tiny, lopsided smile, there was no mistaking the emotion on his face.
I stopped breathing. A tiny part of me, somewhere deep inside, was rejoicing at this newest revelation, though I think, deep down, I’d always suspected. Puck loves me, it whispered, thrilled. He’s in love with me. I knew it. I knew it all along.
“You’re kind of blind, you know?” Puck whispered, smiling to soften his words. “I wouldn’t defy Oberon for just anyone. But, for you…” He leaned forward, touching his forehead to mine. “I’d come back from the dead for you.”
My heart pounded. That tiny part of me wanted this. Puck had always been there: safe, reliable, protective. He was part of my Court, so there was no stupid law to get in the way. Ash was gone; he had already made up his mind. Why not try with Puck?
Puck moved closer, his lips hovering an inch from mine. And all I could see was Ash, the passion on his face, the look in his eyes when he kissed me. Guilt gnawed my insides. No, my mind whispered, as Puck’s breath caressed my cheek. I can’t right now. I’m sorry, Puck.
I drew back slightly, ready to apologize, to tell him I couldn’t right now, when a shadow appeared in the doorway and Ash walked in.
He froze, silhouetted against the night sky, the flowers casting his features in a pale glow. His hair was slightly damp, and his clothes were mended, whether through glamour or something else I couldn’t tell. For a moment, shock and hurt lay open on his face, and his hands fisted at his side. Then, his expression closed, his eyes turning blank and stony. Puck blinked at my expression and turned as Ash walked in. “Oh, hey, Prince,” he drawled, completely unconcerned. “I forgot you were here. Sorry ’bout that.” I tried meeting Ash’s gaze, to show him this wasn’t what he thought, but he was studiously ignoring me.
“I want you gone by morning,” Ash said in cold, clipped tones, sweeping around the campfire. “I want you out of my territory, you and the princess both. According to the law, I could kill you where you stand for trespassing. If I see either of you in Tir Na Nog again, I won’t be so lenient.”
“Jeez, don’t get your panties in a twist, Your Highness.” Puck sniffed. “We’ll be happy to leave, right, Princess?”
I finally caught Ash’s gaze, and my heart sank. He stared at me coldly, no traces of warmth or friendliness on his face. “Yeah,” I whispered, my throat closing up. This was it, the last straw. I’d been in Faery long enough. It was time to go home. Ash began moving the piles of branches, really the dead Iron fey, and dumping them outside. He worked quickly and silently, not looking at either of us, almost feverish in his desire to get them out. When the bodies were cleared away, he grabbed the bottle of wine from the trunk and retired to a far corner, brooding into the glass. His entire posture screamed leave me the hell alone, and even though I wanted to go to him, I kept my distance. Thankfully, Puck didn’t try to kiss me again, but he was never far, giving me secret little smiles, letting me know he was still interested. I didn’t know what to do. My mind was spinning, unable to settle on one thought. Later that evening, Ash stood abruptly and left, announcing he was going to “scout around” for more Iron fey. Watching him stalk out the door without a backward glance, I was torn between running after him and sobbing on Puck’s shoulder. Instead, I pleaded exhaustion and climbed into one of the cots, pulling the blanket over my head so I wouldn’t have to face either of them.
IT WAS HARD to sleep that night. Huddled beneath the quilts, I listened to the sound of Puck snoring and fought back tears.
I didn’t know why I was so miserable. Tomorrow, I was going home, at last. I could see Mom and Luke and Ethan again; I missed them all so much, even Luke. Though I had no idea how much time had passed in the real world, just the thought of returning home should’ve filled me with relief. Even if Mom and Luke were old and gray, and my four-year-old kid brother was older than I was, even if it had been a hundred years, and everyone I knew was…
I gasped and veered my thoughts from that path, refusing to think about it. Home would be the same as it always was. I could finally go back to school, learn to drive, maybe even go to prom this year. Maybe Puck can take me. The thought was so ridiculous I almost laughed out loud, choking on unshed tears. No matter how much I wanted a normal life, there would be a part of me that longed for this world, for the magic and wonder of it. It had seeped into my soul and shown me things I’d never thought existed. I couldn’t be normal and ignorant ever again, knowing what was out there. Faery was a part of me now. As long as I lived, I would always be watching for hidden doors and figures from the corner of my eyes. And for a certain dark prince who could never be mine.
I must’ve fallen asleep, for the next thing I knew, I was opening my eyes and the room was bathed in hazy starlight. The flowers had opened completely and were glowing as if tiny moons nestled between the petals, throwing back the darkness. Ethereal moths and ghostly butterflies flitted over the carpet, delicate wings reflecting the light as they floated between blooms. Careful not to wake Puck, I rose and wandered into the flowers, breathing in the heady scent, marveling as a feathery blue moth landed on my thumb, weighing nothing at all. I breathed out, and it fluttered off toward a dark figure in the center of the carpet. Ash stood in the middle of the room, surrounded by glowing white flowers, eyes closed as tiny lights swirled around him. They shimmered and drew together, merging into a luminescent faery with long silver hair, her features so lovely and perfect that my throat ached. Ash opened his eyes as she reached for him, her hands stopping just shy of his face. Longing shone from his eyes, and I shivered as the spectral faery moved right through him, dissolving into tiny lights.
“Is that…Ariella?” I whispered, walking up behind him.
Ash whirled around, his eyes widening at the sudden interruption. Seeing me, several emotions crossed his face—shock, anger, shame—before he sighed in resignation and turned away.
“No,” he murmured, as the ghostly faery appeared again, dancing among the flowers. “It isn’t. Not in the way you think.”
He shook his head, his eyes never leaving the specter as she swayed and twirled over the glowing carpet, butterflies drifting around her. “Not even that. There is no afterlife for us. We have no souls with which to haunt the world. This is…just a memory.” He sighed, and his voice went very soft. “She was always happy here. The flowers…remember.”
I suddenly understood. This was Ash’s memory of Ariella, perfect, happy and full of life, a yearning so great it was given form, if only for a moment. Ariella wasn’t here. This was only a dream, an echo of a being long departed.
Tears filled my eyes and ran down my face. The gash on my cheek stung where they passed, but I didn’t care. All I could see was Ash’s pain, his loneliness, his yearning for someone who wasn’t me. It was tearing me apart, and I couldn’t say anything. Because I knew, somehow, that Ash was saying goodbye, to both of us.