If you missed chapter one, you can find it here!
Sighing heavily, Laurel dropped her backpack on the kitchen counter. She paused in front of the refrigerator to stare at its contents, then scolded herself for her obvious delay tactics. Still, she grabbed a nectarine before closing the fridge door. If for no other reason than to justify her browsing.
She walked over to the back door and stared, as she often did, at the trees behind her house, searching for signs of the faeries who now resided there full-time. Sometimes she spoke with them. In the last year she had even occasionally supplied them with defensive potions and powders. She didn’t know if the sentries got any use out of them, but at least they didn’t turn them down. It was gratifying to feel like she was helping especially since having to guard her house had disrupted all of their lives.
But with the total absence of trolls activity since last year it hardly seemed necessary anymore. Part of her wanted to suggest they go home, even though she knew better. Jamison had warned her that trolls preferred to strike when their prey was at its most vulnerable, and her experience had proven the truth of his words. Like it or not, it was probably safest if the sentries stayed, at least for now.
Laurel pulled open the back door and set off toward the trees. She wasn’t sure where exactly she was supposed to meet him, but she had no doubt Tamani would find her, as usual. She stopped short when she rounded a scrub oak to discover him removing one shoe with a swift, violent kick. His back was to her and he had already pulled his shirt off; Laurel couldn’t help but stare. She’d never seen him without his shirt on. The sun filtered through the canopy of leaves to illuminate the warm brown skin of his back—darker than David’s—as he bent and pulled at a stubborn shoelace. With a quiet mutter he finally got it undone and kicked it into the trunk of a nearby cypress tree.
As if freed from shackles instead of clothing, Tamani’s shoulders relaxed and he sighed noisily. Even though he was a bit short by human standards, his arms were lean and long. He stretched, flinging them out wide, his broad shoulders forming the top of a slender triangle that narrowed to his waist, where his jeans hung loosely at his hips. The angles of his back caught the sunlight and for a moment Laurel fancied that she could see him soaking in those nourishing rays. She knew she should say something—announce her presence—but she hesitated.
When he placed his hands on the hips she was eyeing and lifted his face to the sky, Laurel realized she’d better make some noise before he took something else off. She cleared her throat quietly.
The sun tossed golden light through Tamani’s hair as he spun, visibly tense. “It’s you,” he said, sounding relieved. He had a strange look on his face and concentrated on the ground. “How long have you been standing there?”
“Not long,” Laurel said quickly.
“A minute?” Tamani pressed. “Two?”
“Um, about one, I guess.”
Tamani shook his head. “And I didn’t hear a thing. Damn human clothes.” He dropped down onto a fallen log and pulled off a sock. “They’re not just uncomfortable, they’re noisy! And what is with that school? It’s so dark.”
Laurel stifled a grin. She’d told her mother the same thing after her first day at Del Norte. “You’ll get used to it,” she said, handing him the nectarine. “You should eat this. It’ll make you feel better.”
He took the fruit from her, his fingers brushing hers. “Thanks,” he said softly. He hesitated, then faced forward and took a bite. “I trained for this. I did! But they never made me stay indoors for this long at once. I was focused on learning the culture and I didn’t even think about the consequences of being inside so much.”
“It helps if you get a seat under the windows,” Laurel suggested. “I learned that the hard way.”
“And who the hell came up with jeans?” Tamani continued darkly. “Heavy, sweltering fabric? You’re seriously telling me the race that invented the internet couldn’t create a fabric better than denim? Please!”
“You said internet,” Laurel said with a snort. “That is so weird.”
Tamani just laughed and took another bite of the nectarine. “You were right,” he said appreciateively, holding up the fruit. “This helps a lot.”
Laurel stepped over and sat down next to him on the fallen log. They were almost close enough to touch, but the air between them might as well have been a granite wall. “Tamani?”
He turned to face her, but said nothing.
Not sure whether it was a mistake, Laurel smiled and leaned forward, wrapping her arms around his neck. “Hello,” she said, her lips near his ear.
He wrapped his arms around her, returning her greeting. She let go and started to pull back, but he held on tighter, his hands begging her to stay. She didn’t fight it—realized she didn’t want to. After a few more seconds, he released her, but it was with obvious reluctance. “Hi,” he said quietly.
She looked up into his light green eyes and was disappointed to realize that the color still bothered her. They weren’t different, really, they were still his eyes. But she found the new color irrationally disturbing.
“Listen,” Tamani said slowly. “I’m sorry this was all such a surprise for you.”
“You could have told me.”
“And what would you have said?” he asked.
Laurel started to say something, then closed her mouth and instead smiled guiltily.
“You’d have told me not to come, right?” Tamani pressed.
Laurel just raised one eyebrow.
“So I couldn’t tell you,” he said with a shrug.
Laurel reached down, plucked a small fern, and began tearing it to pieces. “Where have you been?” she asked. “Shar wouldn’t tell me.”
“Mostly in Scotland, like I said in class.”
It was his turn to look guilty. “Training.”
“Training for what?”
“To come here.”
“The whole time?” Laurel said, her voice barely more than a whisper.
Laurel tried to push away the hurt that instantly filled her chest. “You knew this whole time that you were coming back and you still left without saying goodbye?” She expected him to look ashamed, or at least apologetic, but he didn’t. He met her eyes without blinking.
“As opposed to waiting for you to come and tell me in person that you were choosing David instead of me and wouldn’t be coming ’round anymore? Instead of having Shar deliver the message?”
She looked away, guilt crowding out her hurt feelings.
“How would that have done me any good? You’d have felt better—heroic even—and I’d have looked like a fool going off to the other side of the world to play scorned lover.” He paused, taking a bite of the nectarine and chewing thoughtfully for a moment. “Instead, you had to feel the weight of your choices and I got to keep some of my pride. Just a touch,” he added, “since, regardless, I still had to go off to the other side of the world and play scorned lover. I think my mother would say, ‘Same fruit, different bough.’”
Laurel wasn’t sure she grasped the idiom. Even after two summers in Avalon, faerie culture mostly eluded her.
“But, what’s done is done,” Tamani said, polishing off the nectarine, “and I suggest we don’t dwell on it.” He concentrated for a second before throwing the pit hard at the trees.
A quiet grunt sounded. “Hecate’s eye, Tamani! Was that really necessary?”
Tamani grinned as a tall sentry with closely-cropped hair materialized from between the trees, rubbing his arm. “You were spying,” Tamani said, his tone light.
“I tried to give you some space, but you did ask me to meet you here.”
Tamani spread his hands wide in defeat. “Touché. Who else is coming?”
“The others are watching the house; there’s no reason for them to join us.”
“Great,” Tamani said, sitting up straighter. “Laurel, have you met Aaron?”
“Several times,” Laurel said, smiling her greeting. “Several” was probably stretching it a little, but she was fairly certain they had met once or twice. Last winter she had tried many times to go out and talk with the sentries—make friends. But they had all simply bowed at the waist, which she despised, and said nothing. Still, Aaron looked familiar.
More importantly, he didn’t correct her. He just nodded—so deeply it was almost a bow—then turned back to Tamani.
“Aaron’s already been debriefed by Shar, but he’ll want to hear it explained to you, in case I miss anything,” Tamani began, looking at Laurel. “I’m not here as a regular sentry. I’m here to be what I was always supposed to be; Fear-gleidhidh.”
It took Laurel a moment to remember the word. Last fall, Tamani had told her it meant “escort,” and it resembled a word the Winter faeries used for their bodyguards. But it was somehow more . . . personal.
“We had too many close calls last year,” Tamani continued. “It’s hard for us to watch you while you’re at school, or protect you well in crowded places. So I went to the Manor for some advanced training. I can’t blend in with humans as well as you do, but I can blend in well enough to stay close no matter what.”
“Is that really necessary?” Laurel interjected.
Both fae turned to look at her blankly.
“There hasn’t been any sign of trolls—or anything else—for months.”
A look passed between the two sentries and Laurel felt a stab of fear as she realized there was something they hadn’t told her. “That’s not . . . exactly true,” Aaron said.
“They’ve seen signs of trolls,” Tamani said, sitting back down on the fallen log. “Just no actual trolls.”
“Is that bad?” Laurel asked, still thinking that not seeing trolls—for any reason—was a good thing.
“Very,” Tamani said. “We’ve seen footprints, bloody animal corpses, even an occasional fire pit. But the sentries here are using everything they use at the gates—tracking serums, presence traps—and none of them are registering a troll presence at all. Our tried and true methods simply aren’t finding the trolls we know are here somewhere.”
“Couldn’t they be . . . old signs? Like, from last year?” Laurel asked.
Aaron started to say something but Tamani spoke over him. “Trust me, they’re new.”
Laurel felt a little sick to her stomach. She probably didn’t want to know what Aaron had been about to say.
“But I would have come regardless,” Tamani continued. “Even before you told Shar about . . . the lighthouse, Jamison wanted to send me to find out more about Barnes’ horde,” Tamani said.. “His death gave us some peace, but a troll like him would have lieutenants, or commanders. I think it’s safe to assume this is merely the calm before the storm.”
Fear was gnawing at her insides, now. It was a feeling Laurel had grown used to living without and she wasn’t happy with its sudden return.
“You also gave Klea four sleeping trolls, and it’s probably too much to hope that they simply woke up, killed her, and got on with their lives. It’s possible she interrogated them, found out about you, maybe about the gate.”
Laurel snapped to attention, feeling panicked. “Interrogated? The way she talked, I figured she would just . . . kill them. Dissect them. I didn’t even—”
“It’s okay,” Tamani said. “You did the best you knew how, under the circumstances. You’re not a soldier. Maybe Klea did kill them outright; trying to interrogate them would be suicidal for most humans. And we don’t know how much Barnes told his lackeys, either. But we have to prepare for the worst. If these troll hunters decide to become faerie hunters, then you could be in more danger than ever. Jamison wanted to address these new developments, so he changed the plan slightly.”
“Slightly,” Laurel echoed, feeling suddenly weary. She closed her eyes and covered her face with her hands. She felt Tamani’s arm slip around her.
“Listen,” Tamani said to Aaron, “I’m going to take her inside. I think we’re good here.”
A soft nudge brought Laurel to her feet and she headed toward her house without saying goodbye. She walked quickly, pulling away from Tamani’s hand, wanting both to put distance between them and exert her independence.
What was left of it, anyway.
She pushed through the back door, leaving it open for Tamani, and walked over to the fridge, grabbing the first piece of fruit she saw.
“Can I . . . have another one?” Tamani asked. “The one you gave me really helped.”
Wordlessly Laurel handed him the fruit from her hand, realizing she had no appetite for it.
“What’s wrong?” Tamani asked at last.
“I’m not really sure,” Laurel said, avoiding his eyes. “Everything is just so . . . crazy. I mean,”—she looked up at him now—“I’m so glad you’re back. I really am.”
“Good,” Tamani said, his smile a little shaky. “I was starting to wonder there.”
“But then you tell me I’m in all this danger and suddenly I’m afraid for my life again. No offense, but it kind of overshadows the happiness.”
“Shar wanted to send someone else and just not tell you, but I thought you’d rather know. Even if it meant . . . well, all of this,” he said, gesturing vaguely.
Laurel considered. Something inside her insisted it was better this way, but she wasn’t so sure. “How much danger am I really in?”
“We’re not sure.” Tamani hesitated. “There’s definitely something going on. I’ve only been here a few days, but the things I’ve seen . . . are you familiar with tracking serums?”
“Sure. They change color, right? To show how old a trail is? I can’t make them yet—”
“No need. We have batches specially made for tracking trolls and humans. I poured some in a fresh track and it didn’t react at all. I might as well have poured it on a rock.”
“So, none of your magic works?” Laurel asked, her throat tightening.
“It appears that way,” Tamani admitted.
“Your not making me feel any safer,” Laurel said, trying to inject some humor with a smile. But the quiver in her voice betrayed her.
“Please don’t be afraid,” Tamani insisted. “We don’t need magic—it just makes things easier. We’re doing everything we can to patrol the area. We’re not taking any chances.” He paused. “The problem is that we don’t actually know what we’re up against. We don’t know how many there are, what they’re up to, nothing.”
“So you’re here to tell me I have to be super careful again,” Laurel said, knowing she should feel gratitude, instead feeling resenment. “Stay at home, sundown is Cinderella time, all that?”
“No,” Tamani said quietly, surprising her. “I’m not here to tell you anything. I don’t do patrols, I don’t go hunting, I just stick close to you. You just live your life and continue with all of your normal activities. I’ll keep you safe,” he said, stepping forward to sweep a lock of hair back from her face. “Or die trying.”
Laurel stood frozen, knowing he meant every word. He misread her stillness as an invitation and leaned forward, his hand cupping her cheek.
“I missed you,” he whispered, his breath light on her face. A gentle sigh escaped Laurel’s lips before she could stop it and as Tamani drew nearer her eyes began to close on their own.
“Nothing’s changed,” she whispered, his face only a hair’s breadth from hers. “I made my choice.”
His hand stilled, but she sensed the slightest tremor at his fingertips. She watched him swallow once before smiling wanly and pulling back.
“Forgive me. I . . . overstepped.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
“Same thing you do every day,” Tamani said, shrugging. “The less change to your routine, the better.”
“That’s not what I meant,” said Laurel, forcing herself to look him in the eye.
He shook his head. “Nothing. It’s me who has to deal with it, not you.”
Laurel looked at the floor.
“I mean it,” Tamani said, shifting subtly, putting more distance between them. “You don’t have to watch out for me or try to be my friend in school. I’ll just be around, and it will be fine.”
“Fine,” Laurel repeated, nodding.
“You know those apartments down on Harding?” Tamani asked, sounding casual again.
“The green ones?”
“Aye. I’m number seven,” he said, his smile playful. “Just in case you ever need me.”
He headed toward the front door and Laurel watched him for a few seconds before reality crept back in. “Tamani, stop!” she said, leaping off her stool and sprinting to the entryway. “Do not go out my front door with no shirt on. I have very nosey neighbors.” She reached out to grab his arm. He turned and, almost instinctively, his hand rose to cover hers. He stared down at her fingers, so light against his olive skin, and his eyes traced the length of her hand, her arm, her shoulder, her neck. He closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. When he opened them again his expression was neutral. He smiled easily, gave her hand a squeeze, then released it and let it fall from his arm.
“Of course,” he said lightly, “I’ll go out the back.”He turned toward the back of the house, then paused and looked at her. He lifted his hand and touched the necklace he had given her—her baby faerie ring, hung on its silver chain. He smiled softly. “I’m glad you still wear this.”