Ballad a gathering of f.., p.16

Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie, page 16

 part  #2 of  Books of Faerie Series


Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie

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Page 16


  Dull greenish light in the hallway vaguely illuminated the closed doors of the other rooms. I padded down the hallway, into the dim stairwell that smelled of sweat and the middle of the night. I paused by the window I normally snuck out of to see the antlered king, but that wasn’t what I’d seen in my dream. It was the back door I needed.

  I crept into the main hallway of the ground floor, past Sullivan’s room. I imagined the door opening up and Sullivan springing out like a knobby jack-in-the-box, but it stayed shut and I made it through the lobby to the back door. I turned the lock to make sure I’d be able to get back in, and then, shuddering with the cold, I pushed the door open and stood on the back porch.

  I saw Nuala.

  She was curled against the side of the dorm, body unnaturally twisted, arms stretched sort of above her and out, like she was crucified. She had her face half-turned toward me, tears streaked down her cheeks, and she was kicking in front of her. It seemed to take forever for her to notice me, standing there, staring at her, and when she did, I saw some weird, unidentified emotion in her eyes. In that long moment, her body jerked in a weird way, and I finally figured it out.

  Because I can see Them and you can’t.

  “Don’t just stand there,” Nuala snarled. Not nasty, though. Like a trapped wild animal.

  I grabbed at my iron bracelet, working the knobs loose from my wrist, and I lunged toward her. Nuala’s arms dropped, released, and she pointed me toward her invisible attacker. Too late to be useful to me.

  Something struck me, hard, electric, inhuman, and I staggered and swung with the iron bracelet. I was blind, but I wasn’t stupid. An invisible body thumped hard against one of the columns, and I charged at the column with the iron outstretched in front of me like a sword. I punched again, and this time the faerie appeared, green-tinted, beautiful, and alien.

  “Hello, piper,” he hissed at me.

  And then he was a swan, as if he had never been anything else, and he winged through the columns and away. I watched the white blot disappear into the dark sky, and then I turned back to Nuala. She was crouched on the bricks, ineffectually pulling at her hair like she was trying to make it look presentable, and she was still crying. Not like a human, though. Her tears streamed silently down her face, one after another, and she didn’t even seem to notice them as she jerked at her shirt and sucked at some sort of cut on her wrist.

  “Was he the only one?” I asked.

  “Bastard,” Nuala said. She spoke as if her tears didn’t change her voice. “Bastard faeries. I hate Them. I hate Them. ”

  I dropped down in front of her, not sure what I was supposed to be doing or feeling. The bricks were cold and prickly through the knees of my jeans. I didn’t know what to say. Was I supposed to say “are you okay?” I didn’t even know what had happened. Had she been raped? Was there such a thing as almost raped? Her clothing was all messed up and she was crying—the psychotic creature was crying—so I mean, that couldn’t be good. I mean, it had to have been something bad.

  I felt like maybe I should give her a hug, or something, even though she’d never indicated that she was the sort that would appreciate fond human contact. Unless it was the brush of your skin against her fingertips as she stuck a knife between your ribs.

  “Just shut up. ” Nuala pressed her hand over her face. “Hell, James. Just shut up. ”

  I realized that she meant my thoughts at the same moment that Nuala realized there were tears on her face. Standing up, she pulled her wet palm away from her face and stared at it, looking absolutely stricken and very human. She moved her fingers slightly, watching the tears glisten in the faint light. Looking at them made more silent tears streak from her eyes, one after another, as if they would never end, as if the worst thing in the world was that she had discovered she was crying.

  I felt disoriented. We had roles that we played when we were around each other, and now Nuala was letting me down. I didn’t know who I was supposed to be around her anymore.

  Nuala scrubbed her hands against her short jean skirt, wiping the tears off in an angry movement, and then jerked down the bottom of the skirt, straightening it out. I reached behind her to knock the crap off the back of her shirt. She flinched at my touch. I didn’t know what to do about that so I pretended not to notice.

  “So now you know. ” Nuala didn’t look at me, just kept busy flicking invisible pieces of lint off her clothing.

  This was easier than silence. “Now I know what?”

  “How it is. With me. ”

  I blinked. Clearly, from the expression on her face and the ragged edge to her voice, this was supposed to be a statement pregnant with meaning. I ran back over the scene in my mind and everything she’d said. “Nuala, you’re the one who reads minds, not me. ”

  Nuala looked back at me and her stance said so clearly no, never mind that I almost thought she’d said it out loud. But instead she said, “I’m one of the solitary fey. You know what that means?”

  She paused as if she really did expect me to answer.

  “Means I’m a freak, James. ”

  I didn’t remember her ever calling me by my name before, and it had a really weird effect on me, like I couldn’t trust anything I thought about her anymore. I had a pen in my jeans, and I wanted to get it out. I could already see the shape of the letters I would write: call by name.

  “I don’t care if you do,” Nuala said. She jerked her chin toward the pocket where my pen was. “Don’t you get it? I’m a bigger freak than you are. ”

  I crossed my arms tightly across my chest. I should’ve said something sarcastic to lighten the mood, but I didn’t want to. I wanted her to finish saying what she was going to say.

  “And nobody vouches for me. You don’t know how lucky you are. You have human laws and school rules and you have your parents and Sullivan and even Paul, and they all keep the world from you. I’m just me, nobody to nobody. Is it so stupid that it’s taken me this long to figure out that I’m jealous of you?” She laughed, wild and unhappy. “You, who were supposed to be my asshole free ride until I got torched this year and forgot about everything. ”

  I sighed. If she’d been Dee, I would’ve waited a second longer, to let her completely implode, but she wasn’t Dee, and I didn’t think Nuala worked quite the same way. I thought about what I had wanted to write on my hand, so that I wouldn’t forget to do it.

  “Nuala,” I said.

  She looked at me.

  “Nuala, can we just have, like, a cease-fire? I mean, you can go back to calling me an ass and trying to lure me to my death tomorrow and I’ll go back to treating you like a psychotic bitch and researching ways to exorcize you in the morning, but seriously, can we just have a cease-fire for tonight? ’Cause, seriously, trying to think about this is making my head hurt, and—can we just go somewhere and get some food or something? Is there even someplace that has food at this time of night?”

  Her face was unreadable. “I just keep thinking that at some point, I’m going to stop being surprised by how stupidly ballsy you are. Were you ever afraid of me?”

  I said, truthfully, “You scare the shit out of me. ”

  She started to laugh then, crazy, real laughing, like I was the funniest thing in the world. When she laughed like that, it made her either the scariest girl or the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen, and I couldn’t decide if the feeling inside me was because I wanted to make her do it again or because I wanted to run away.


  I was sitting in a movie theater at 4:13 in the morning, with a faerie muse who had vaguely psychic vampire tendencies, watching The Sixth Sense.

  At this point in my life I’d had some pretty freaky, surreal experiences already, such as (1) watching my best friend move things with her mind, (2) being dragged from my wrecked car by a soulless faerie assassin, and (3) feeling the inexorable pull of the king of the dead’s nightly song. And really, sitting with Nuala and watching
a crazy little boy tell Bruce Willis that he saw dead people should’ve been included amongst them.

  But it felt almost normal.

  Okay, so maybe Nuala had gone a little overboard with the butter on the popcorn, but hell, I didn’t know how to really use one of those movie theater popcorn machines either. And was there really such a thing as too much butter on popcorn?

  “Look,” Nuala ordered. She wasn’t eating the popcorn. It occurred to me that maybe she didn’t eat food, period. I knew humans weren’t supposed to eat faerie food because it would trap them in Faerie. Did it work the same way for faeries and human food? Nuala swatted my arm to get my attention. “Look, see? Every time something supernatural is about to happen, the director gives you a clue. The red. See the red there?”

  I didn’t bother to comment on the irony of Nuala pointing that out to me. “Yeah. ” I’d been sitting in the seat so long that my butt was going to sleep. I shifted, propping my feet up on the seat in front of me. Nuala’s eyes were still fastened on the screen in front of us; the light of the movie flickered across her face. Her pupils dilated and contracted with every change of light. So much like a human while still being three thousand miles away from being one.

  “How many movies have you seen?” I asked. It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested in the movie, just that I’d seen the ending, like, fourteen times, and I was more interested in why Nuala was sitting in a movie theater and why, of all the movies in the world that she’d wanted to watch, she’d picked this one.

  She slouched down in the seat beside me. “Thousands, I guess. I don’t know. Before I figured it out, I thought I would be a director. ”

  I was a little tired; it took me a moment to figure out what she meant. I didn’t have time to comment before Nuala gave me a withering look and said, “You can’t really get to be a director in sixteen years, you know? And like, what’s the point?”

  It seemed like a stupid question to me. “The same point as anyone else wanting to be a director. You really want to be a director? Like, movies?”

  “Yeah, like movies. All of those lives played out, with music in the background. It’s like living a thousand lives without ever leaving yours. ” Nuala smiled lazily at the movie screen. “I even thought of the name I’d use: ‘Izzy Leopard. ’”

  I started to laugh.

  Nuala slapped me, raising goose bumps. “Shut up!”

  I covered my face with an arm and kept laughing. “God, woman, how’d you come up with that name? It sounds like a drunk guy asking if someone’s got leprosy. ”

  Nuala slapped my arm again. “Shut up. It’s distinctive. People would remember it. You know, they’d be, ‘Oh, Izzy Leopard did this film. ’ ‘Oh yeah?’ ‘She’s brilliant. ’”

  “And a leper. ”

  Nuala’s expression was fierce. “I could kill you. ”

  “Oh, if I had a dime for every time someone’s told me that. Oh, if I had a dime for every time you’ve told me that. ”

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