Cristina finally fell asleep to the sound of Kieran’s strong and steady heartbeat amplified by a monitor. They were in a forgotten part of the hospital, which was nothing but a broom cupboard to most eyes. The glamour was hiding a fully equipped operating theatre as well as a couple of rooms for patients and one for the doctor himself. Her uncle Juan had operated on the Unseelie prince in the late afternoon after their arrival. He had enlisted the help of two colleagues who he had taken into his confidence over the years. Nevertheless, it was a dangerous business to operate on a faerie and Juan had admitted as much. He was fully aware that their knowledge of the fair folk and their physiognomy was limited and that he should have run more detailed pre-op tests. However, this would not only have been time-consuming but it also carried the risk of exposing the mundanes, himself as well as the prince. In the end, a fervent professional curiosity and the desire to help prevailed. Things had not started well with the prince initially showing little effects from the anaesthetics and now he wasn’t coming back around again as they would have expected. However, the procedure had gone well and they had succeeded in surgically implanting carbon fibre protheses into Kieran’s leg bones.
It was almost early evening the next day and Cristina was sleeping curled up on an armchair when a noise woke her. The sight that greeted her in her half-asleep state, made her jump out of her skin. There was a strange creature standing in the middle of the room and she was up and ready to fight in the blink of an eye before she realised it was the Unseelie prince. He had shed his hospital gown and put his trousers back on which he had tied up around his legs where the protheses emerged from the flesh. His bareness apart from the improvised breeches and the matt grey metallic artificial legs shaped like running blades somehow gave him the appearance of a faun. He was standing a little uncertainly, shifting around, looking like a mystical creature from another world. However, when he half turned his wiry, scarred body to face her, he looked nothing but intimidating. Cristina’s hand had flown up to cover her mouth in shock. She had not expected this transformation. Moreover, she had not expected him to be up and walking a mere 24 hours after the invasive surgery. Startlingly, he seemed fine. Like a phoenix from the ashes, reborn from identical molecules, different yet the same. Tears welled up in her eyes and she turned away, busying herself with her blanket that had dropped to the floor. Kieran stalked over with his new, unfamiliar gait.
“Do I look that terrifying?” he asked uncertainly.
“No,” she muttered and looked up at him, “it’s not that.” She swallowed hard. “I was so scared that I might have done the wrong thing. That I might kill you after all. But here you are. You look amazing! I can’t believe you’re up. How are you feeling?”
He just pulled her into a hug and leaned on her a little, still uncertain of how to distribute his weight onto his new limbs.
“We must leave,” he said after a while. “I received a fire message from Magnus.”
. . .
Kieran explained that Magnus had taken the Blackthorns to a safe place far away. Based on the sparse information he was giving her, Cristina suspected that it was the same place where Magnus had taken the prince after their calamitous venture into Faerie. Although Kieran tried to reassure her, she was worried about what they would find. So, she clung silently to the rider for most of their long journey along the red skies of the world. She thought she must have fallen asleep at some point and they were exhausted when they finally arrived in a beautiful woodland in what looked like late afternoon. There was a little stream as well as a dark lake on the other side of which she could make out a red wooden house with white window frames and a veranda running all around it. The lights inside made it look very warm and inviting.
Nerves got the better of Cristina as they were walking up to the house. It was no surprise although a somewhat incongruous sight when Magnus stepped onto the veranda with a grim expression on his face to greet them. He seemed a little startled when he saw Kieran but approached quickly and wrapped his right hand around the prince’s right lower arm and put the other hand on his shoulder in as warm a greeting as these two would probably ever share. Nevertheless, Cristina sensed Magnus’ joy and relief at seeing this new Kieran as the warlock was apparently lost for words and just smiled at the younger man. After greeting her, Magnus motioned for them to come inside where they were faced with Mark who had come to check out the new arrivals, seraph blade in hand. Helen entered the hallway behind him from what seemed a kitchen/diner. Cristina was taken aback and instinctively moved closer to Kieran. It was as if time stopped whilst they were all taking each other in. Cristina’s heart was beating painfully as she watched a storm of emotions cross Mark’s rigid face. She could feel his profound relief mixed with an equal amount of anger. He had looked Kieran over and then proceeded to examine them both, making Cristina feel increasingly uncomfortable. A hot flush crept up her neck and she felt open like a book. Without warning, Mark lunged at Kieran, throwing him against the door frame, holding the gleaming blade to his throat.
“Where were you?” Mark demanded. “Three days!” he was shouting now as all the anger and emotion unravelled. “Where in the name of all that’s sacred in this world have you been? I thought I’d never see you again! Doesn’t seem like you cared half as much. You obviously have nothing better to do than to f…”
“Mark!!” Cristina exclaimed and drowned out the rest of the sentence. Mark didn’t look at her. All his anger was directed at Kieran and the hostility in his voice made her heart stop. She should have known.
Eventually, Mark threw the short sword to the floor and ran out of the door.
“Wow…You people never fail to surprise!” Magnus’ voice was dripping with sarcasm but then his expression turned grim again. “You see, we had a rather combustible encounter with Julian and Emma the other night.”
“Julian would have killed Ty if it wasn’t for Emma,” Helen added curtly.
“Ty?!” Cristina was confused.
“He dared challenge Julian. But Julian actually wanted you,” Helen looked at Kieran. “So, it was just as well that you weren’t there.” All the sadness in the world was reflected in Helen’s eyes who had just been reunited with her siblings only to lose them one by one or so it seemed.
Kieran straightened up with a grunt. “I need some air,” he muttered and staggered outside. Magnus went after him, leaving Cristina with Helen who studied her suspiciously.
“What are you playing at?” she asked the younger girl with a hard edge to her voice.
“What do you mean?” Cristina asked half-heartedly. Helen just looked at her coldly.
“I don’t know what it is with the three of you but I thought you and Mark… Never mind. Do not hurt my brother! We are all hurting enough already.” The beautiful half-faerie glared at her with her brother’s eyes and Cristina felt utterly miserable. She had ruined everything.
. . .
Kieran and Magnus had disappeared but there was only one person Cristina wanted to talk to right now. She needed to explain to Mark what had happened. It didn’t take too long to find him as she knew he would be drawn to a remote, wild place somewhere but she also knew he wouldn’t stray too far from the house where his family was. However, he was not alone.
Cristina had walked through the woods down to the river and slowed down when she heard angry voices. As she let the sound guide her, she trod more carefully until she could make out Kieran’s striking figure with his blades gleaming in the low sunlight. She had not seen Mark initially but then noticed the movement that was slightly obscured from her view by the faerie. The young men stood facing each other by the pebbly river bank. If they needed to have it out with each other, she did not want to interrupt and therefore remained hidden amongst the trees, half turning back to leave the boys alone. She could make out from Mark’s body language that he was agitated and angry and doing much of the shouting whilst Kieran observed him, the outward picture of absolute calm. Just as Cristina thought this, Kieran slapped Mark, only to receive an instant punch to the face in return, which sent him reeling back. Cristina stopped in her tracks, shocked. Everything had gone quiet, even the birds seemed to have stopped chirping momentarily, wondering what had brought on this sudden violence. Kieran slowly raised a hand to his mouth. It came away bloody and Mark took a tentative step towards him, raising his hands apologetically but Kieran launched himself at him. The force of it took Mark by surprise and he crashed violently to the ground, Kieran on top of him, pinning him down with his bad arm at Mark’s throat. They had gone quiet, hurtful words apparently expended. Eventually, Kieran pushed back and made to stand up, however, Mark grabbed him and a fierce wrestling match ensued.
Following her initial shock, Cristina now wanted to intervene as she was getting concerned about Mark and Kieran’s willingness to express their pain by physically hurting each other. Once again, she stopped when the wrestling turned into something else. Mark’s shirt had ripped and Kieran proceeded to pull it off him, running his fingernails down the half-faerie’s back and pulling him in for a furious kiss. Mark retaliated by pushing Kieran to the ground, immobilising him by pinning down his hands over his head which must have been hurting Kieran’s left arm. The prince struggled to free his hands but suddenly stilled as Mark started pulling at Kieran’s trousers, exposing naked skin. Mark flipped Kieran over, holding him down whilst he undid his own jeans.
Cristina watched the scene unfolding in front of her in transfixed horror, her heart hammering in her chest. One half of her felt she should turn away and not witness what should be something private between two people. The other half felt she ought to stop what was happening. Then it was all over before Cristina could force her frozen limbs into action.
Mark rolled onto his back and remained motionless on the ground whilst Kieran scrambled to his feet and staggered away towards the treeline. He fell into a quick stride whilst doing up his clothes one-handed and Cristina realised that he was coming straight towards where she still stood hidden by the trees. Kieran entered the wood moments later and seemed to instantly become aware of her although she stood a few steps away to his right in the thicket. Their eyes locked and for a moment there was an angry challenge in his eyes before he turned and strode on.
Cristina let out the breath she had been holding, feeling her legs wobble. She looked towards Mark who hadn't moved at all. She wouldn’t have known what to say to him or that her presence would have been welcomed, so instead she hesitatingly turned and followed Kieran further into the woods. However, he had all but disappeared and she soon lost her bearings when she realised to her surprise that she was approaching the lake in front of the house they were staying at. The lake’s water was impenetrably dark and its shoreline mostly obscured by reeds apart from a few surprisingly fine-grained strips of sandy beach. She was startled to find that Kieran had stopped by the water, allowing her to catch up with him. He stood with his back to her, all tense and taut like a bow.
She stopped at a distance behind him, sure that he knew she was there. Yet, he didn’t move or say anything. After all, what was there to say. He knew what she had witnessed but she didn’t feel like discussing it any more than he did. It was not for her to apologise for, yet she felt the weight of her responsibility for what had become of these two young men’s relationship.
“Don’t leave!” she ventured after a while. He didn’t react.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he suddenly asked.
Cristina was stumped. “Tell you what?”
Kieran turned around part way, looking towards but not really at her. “That you and Mark had not made any promises.”
It took Cristina a moment to process this although it had occurred to her before that Kieran had assumed her and Mark to be together. Nevertheless, she hadn’t expected this reaction at all. And she didn’t know how to interpret it. “How would that make any difference now?” she asked, puzzled.
Kieran now fully faced her and looked at her, equally confused by her lack of understanding. “I thought he was sure of you. That he wouldn’t feel threatened by me or jealous.”
Cristina struggled to follow his train of thought. “So…if you had known that we were not together…in that way, you wouldn’t have slept with me? That doesn’t make any sense.”
Kieran looked somewhat offended. “I would have understood that nothing had changed and your feelings for each other were still unspoken, unacknowledged and fragile. I would have stayed away - rather than try to gain strength from what should have been stronger without me.”
Conversations with Kieran always made Cristina feel like she was on the backfoot, trying to catch up. Her mind was reeling.
“Did you?” she asked eventually.
He hesitated before quietly acknowledging: “Yes.”
A wave of relief washed over her. “Doesn’t that prove you are part of the equation?”
She had managed to surprise him and Kieran was now the one searching for words.
“How can I be? Why should I not leave? Whatever I do, wherever I go, I will bring pain to the ones I love – not because it is my choice but because of the role that fate has assigned me.” All of a sudden, the prince looked positively distressed. “Besides…Mark and I have broken our promises many times over. He is right. Our love is corrupted. We can never go back.”
“Yet you love him. And he loves you.”
“That is the tragedy.” He looked at her then, his feelings stripped bare, heartbreakingly vulnerable and forlorn. “I had almost hoped that he had made a life with you. Without me. But I find I cannot leave him be any more than he seems to be able to let me go.”
Uncertainly, Cristina approached, unsure whether Kieran would allow her to touch him. When she reached out, he took her hand but kept her at a distance.
“Don’t go,” she whispered but the tension would not leave Kieran’s body. They stood in silence for a long time before he kissed her hand and walked away.