Maybe he was going insane. Or maybe the frigid cold of this place was finally getting to him.
He could have sworn that Meghan and Ash were having a Private Conversation (one that they had intended for no one to hear except for themselves) sometime before the group had started traveling for the day. As Oberon's best jester, naturally Puck made it his business to listen in on these things, but as Meghan's best friend...he'd opted not to.
Had that been a mistake?
Puck snuck a sidelong glance at Meghan and Ash as they chatted on the snowy path, mainly about Tir Na Nog's resident badies and beasties, how the Unseelie fey there lived, with Meghan trying to get a better handle on the local color. Puck wasn't all that interested (and he already knew most of it from his days spent with Ash and Ariella anyway) so he'd volunteered to take point and scout ahead for incoming trouble. But his thoughts kept returning to that sneaking suspicion that he was missing something. It didn't make sense. Hours ago, he was napping on Meghan's nightside table, worried that she'd seen through him too soon and now, he was concerned he hadn't shown enough.
He sighed, hands dug into his pockets. Was there any happy balance? And how much did he really want to know about what had happened between those two?
He didn't want to think about Meghan like that, like she were hiding things from him deliberately. He already felt kinda uncharitable thinking about Ash that way; they'd been friends centuries longer than they'd been enemies, and even though they made every attempt to battle each other to the dirty finish, Puck knew that neither of them had the heart to finish off the other. It was...difficult to explain. Logically, he knew that they could probably talk it out if they tried. But would he be willing to have a heart-to-heart with ice boy about a girl who'd meant so much to both of them before she'd died and maybe more to them after?
Not in the least.
Puck made himself keep looking at the road, but it was pretty dull and his thoughts kept drifting back to Ash and Meghan. He was certain that something had passed between them, something that he hadn't seen, and no one was telling him about it. But was knowledge really better than ignorance? He chewed on his lip, considering.
They were making good time, at least, and even Grimalkin seemed to have taken the day off, ostensibly having more important things to do than trudge through snow, and Puck couldn't blame him. It had been only a few hours since they'd left the Chillsorrow Manor and already he had to cast a few warming spells on himself, and a couple subtler ones on Meghan so that she wouldn't freeze but not obvious enough for her to notice. Summer fey tended to do poorly in cold conditions and today was no exception. Even Puck's glamour seemed to be chipping away with each bite of wind.
Still, there was one faery in their party who seemed to be doing just fine.
"You can thank Goodfellow that we lost a day." Ash commented dryly. "If we'd started out yesterday, we might already be there by now."
Puck rolled his eyes, hands spaded in his pockets to keep out cold of the Winter kingdom, imaging the Winter prince move gracefully through the snow drifts behind him, walking his snooty walk. Like Meghan would find that attractive, Puck snorted as he slogged along, nowhere near as elegant as the prince.
"Geez, and here I thought that after the cat showed up, it would be impossible for our merry little party to get any more fun. You are just a barrel of sunshine, aren't you, Ash?" Puck retorted, eyes still roaming the landscape, looking for threats. It just looked very cold. Boring, but nothing he couldn't handle. Just like some ice prince...
Meghan pulled her cloak closer with a shiver. "Guys, much as I love hearing you two argue, I think there's a storm up ahead."
Before them was a cloud of white, ice and snow so concentrated that it did, as Meghan commented, look like a storm. It was only in one area, almost like a tornado of snow, but those weren't entirely uncommon here. All parts of the Nevernever were a little unpredictable at times, and Tir Na Nog had its own idiosyncrasies.
Puck probably wouldn't have looked twice at the cloud if it hadn't been for Ash.
It was a quick thing, but for a moment, the prince's calm demeanor broke and Puck caught a flash of surprise, recognition.
That was all it took for Puck to know that he had to get out the hell of there. Quickly summoning up a doppleganger of himself with a leaf, he took to the trees, watching as the wind whipped closer. He cursed himself for not getting Meghan out, too, tried to reason that he'd had no choice but to leave her if he wanted to help her later, but a part of him whispered that there was always a choice, and that he'd chosen wrong. When the cloud did meet their group, after all, it was Ash who was still with Meghan in corporeal form, not him.
And that seemed to make all the difference. Given the choice, would she choose someone real or someone fake?
Before he had time to ruminate on this, though, his doppelganger and Meghan were encased in ice.
"And here I thought I overreacted." Puck breathed. "Well, damn."
Under normal circumstances, he would have leapt into action and worked to get her out but right now something didn't feel right. His eyes were narrowed into slits- he had to find out who'd done this. It didn't look like Meghan was in one of Mab's famous living-but-constantly-suffocating icicles, but Puck wasn't willing to risk freeing her before he knew who he was taking on. He'd worked with Ash enough in the past to know that that prince would probably try to squirm out of this if it was a winter sidhe, but in case Ash failed and they had to fight, Puck would need to be ready in the wings.
"Just like old times." The jester sighed. It was just the waiting that was torturous.
"Narissa." Ash's voice was pitiless, bored. He didn't make a move to helping either of his trapped compatriots, but instead turned to face the cloud as it condensed into the form of a beautiful snow nymph.
"Prince," the sidhe, Narissa, inclined her head in a bow, "how very fortunate that we met here. Your mother the Queen has been very worried about you." She said the last word like a dagger thrust, sharp, verging on mocking. "And how nice, you have the half-breed with you. Why don't I just take her back with me to the castle for you? After all, it would only be demeaning for you to be seen with her now."
Ash tensed and Puck rolled his eyes. Some emotions the ice prince just could not hide to save his life. Like anger. And...being a cold jerk. "I don't think so."
"Come now," Narissa beckoned, pursing her lips into a pout, "you must allow me to take her from here, Ash darling. You know that this is no job fit for a prince."
Puck watched and drew his dagger as Ash shifted into a fighting stance. Time for the cavalry to get ready.
Ash's sword gleamed in his hand as he pointed it out at the sidhe with a cruel but knowing smile. "Then that explains why Rowan sent you instead of coming himself, doesn't it?"
It turned out to be a straight-forward affair. Puck supposed that he could have dropped down from the branches and popped in to finish the snow sidhe off, but decided that he'd let the Winter court deal with its own idiots. What he really wanted to do was to get Meghan out of her ice prison.
But Ash was the one who had the most practice with that sort of thing. Drawing on Summer magic in Tir Na Nog was tricky business already, and while Robin Goodfellow wasn't the kind of faery to admit that he was easy pickings for anyone, he'd be dumb to say he was still at his best. If Puck tried to get Meghan out, he might end up drowning her, or at the very least getting her clothes completely soaked, since he'd probably have to melt the icicle in its entirety. Assuming that he could muster up the magic to do it, which might not be possible.
No, some things in life were best left to a professional, and though it pained him to do it, sometimes he had to sacrifice a little now (like his pride and, okay, maybe a desire to show Meghan all the cool Summer fey things they could do together) in order to gain a lot later. Oddly enough, waiting was much less easier the second time he had to do it.
When at last the snow nymph was nothing but bits of ice and a bad memory, Ash turned to Meghan and gently shattered the crystal. Puck let out a soft, low whistle of appreciation as the shards of ice flew outwards and avoided hitting Meghan or scratching her at all. The kid knew his stuff. Puck was about to make his entrance- he was thinking about knocking on the icicle in which his likeness was trapped and making a joke about how winter wear wasn't his thing- when something made him stop.
"Ash, you have to get Puck out, too!" Meghan was on her knees, her breath coming heavily. She'd probably gotten too cold, Puck realized and bit back a wave of anger. He couldn't have acted, but Ash could have been a little quicker about rescuing her. These were his dumbass subjects after all- he should know how to corral them.
The Unseelie prince turned to Meghan, his eyes dead. "Why would I do that?"
"Because," Meghan was confused; to her, this made no sense, she still saw them all as humans, not as the fey they were, "he's your friend, right?"
Ash laughed, a hollow sound, like wind whistling through bones, and turned back to the path.
Puck rolled his eyes, coming back down through the trees. Oh jeez. Talk about ways to upset a princess. It was one of the Nevernever's greatest mysteries that Ariella had stuck around with Lord of the Ice Cubes for so long when he acted like this. Still, Meghan had a lot to learn about him and Ash. In fact, Puck realized that he probably still had a lot of learn about him and Ash as well.
Puck was about to reveal himself, pat Meghan on the back and thank her for her concern, but that really, he was a big faery and could look after himself, when she said something that would make him freeze on his branch, make him reconsider everything that he had given up, everything that he had done up to this point.
"Ash, we had a deal! Now get back here and get Puck out right now!"
Ash walked back, a mirthless smirk on his face. "Our deal involved you and me, not Goodfellow. Or don't you remember?"
Meghan was furious. Somewhere in Puck's numbed mind, he realized that he'd never seen her this mad, even when her mother forgot that she needed a ride into school or that it was her birthday. "If you don't unfreeze him right now, then I'm not coming with you back to your Court. Got it?"
Ice shattered, flew away in all directions inward and outward, but Puck didn't notice. He dropped down from the tree lightly, his feet barely noting how cold the snow was, deadly quiet. Meghan ran forward and grabbed his double's bloodied body as it fell, but her words still echoed in his head. His surprise registered dully at the fact that the doppelganger had lasted after taking so much injury, but then the battered Puck vanished as Meghan still cradled it in her arms, only to look up in shock to find that her hands held only the frayed skeleton of a leaf. It didn't last long.
Maybe the real Puck wouldn't either.
"You made a deal with him, princess?" He asked, standing behind her. Meghan swing around, her face pale, eyes glistening, the silly leaf still cupped in her hands like a dead bird or something precious. He could tell that she wanted to say something, but he wasn't ready for that, wouldn't let her. "You sold your freedom to him so that he would come with us? Is that it?"
Meghan swallowed, and in that instant he knew that he'd been right.
Puck felt the impact of his fist pounding into the frost-encrusted bark of the tree before he even had the thought to punch it.
"Puck, listen, I had to do it. I need to find Ethan and to do that I needed someone to show me the way into the Unseelie Court, someone who could fight-"
He could stand to hear no more.
"I could have done that!" Puck felt the rage coiling up within him, burning his chest, throat, mouth on the way out, like the words he spoke were made of molten fire instead of air. "Damn it, princess! I could have protected you. I could have gotten you into the castle. How many times do you think I've snuck in there? I found you the trod. I've protected you for sixteen years! What made you think that I wouldn't have been enough?"
He wasn't sure he she responded or not, wasn't sure if he wanted to hear.
She hadn't thought that he could do it. She'd thought he wasn't good enough.
She'd seen him get imprisoned by Oberon, seen him at his worst, and decided that he wasn't worth the risk, that she would rather place her safety in the hands of someone better equipped to look after her, someone just as royal as she was, someone he could never be.
Someone, Puck seethed, who was standing just a few feet out of striking distance.
"You had me." He said in a softer voice, feeling at last beginning to creep up his bloodied hand as the adrenaline faded and the pain made itself known. "Why on earth wasn't I enough?"
Puck knew he probably should have expected it. Betrayal was just something that faeries did, royalty especially. Kings and queens double-crossed each other everyday and Puck took great delight in making fun of them. Everyone said that Robin Goodfellow was long overdue a bad prank of his own, and he whole-heartedly agreed with them. He even had a few faeries he'd expected it would come from.
He just hadn't expected that the person to finally do it would be Meghan Chase.
I am so sorry that this took forever to get up! School started again and it's made getting chapters going a little more difficult; I've also be working on an original project of mine as well, so balancing out the time between fanfic and my other work has been difficult. Never fear, though, because now that we are entering the craziness of this story, I will try to get more chapters coming at you guys. ;D
Hope stuff has been good for everyone and I'll do my best to have another chapter up as soon as I can!