Eerie Tower, Present Day
Owen Burnett sighed as he lowered himself into a chair in the parlor of his living quarters. The majordomo was faced with a singular problem he had limited experience with, free time. The Xanatos family had gone to Maine to visit Petros Xanatos. So no teaching Alexander as an excuse to let the Puck out to play and Owen's duties were finished for the day, provided no emergencies developed.
He could use this time to reminisce with Cassandra, but she was out with the rest of the Manhattan clan. The hawk-faced man let his stoic expression relax into a slight but unmistakable smile as he thought about his former pupil. He had worried about the halfling gargoyle living alone on her Mediterranean island. He had to pull her out of that isolation before.
The last time had been over thirty years ago. His smile widened with remembrance. She hadn't wanted to come with him and Coyote to the hippie concert. And she had ended up having the most fun of all until it ended trying the save a mortal's life. The smile vanished. Why hadn't he told Cassandra how much the mortal she saved meant to him? Maybe if he had just admitted it once, Bridget would still be with him.
The stone fist that ended his right arm hit the armrest of the easy chair in frustration. There wasn't any need to dwell on the past. No need to remember how Bridget would collapse helpless with laughter at the conclusion of one of their pranks. No need to remember how the light would dance in her dove-gray eyes or how they would spark when her Irish temper was riled. No need to remember the smoothness of her skin or the sweetness of her kisses. That life was over, dead and buried along with his heart. There was no stopping the memories now that they were summoned. He buried his face into his left hand and his long fingers twined into his blond hair. He let himself descend fully into the past.
It was a lull between bands. Not quiet, the crowd of thousands idling until the next band started prevented any type of silence. Some had managed to stake out spots on the grass with blankets; most crowded as close to the stage as they could get. But not all of the audience was humans.
A clinging couple fought their way out of the horde of bodies. The slim girl laughingly let go of the neck of her Native American dance partner and collapsed on the grassy area that was free of people near a tent. Puck watched them carefully, using magic to access their conversation above the noises of the crowd and the sounds of the music that was beginning. She pushed her wavy black hair out of her green eyes. Her classic Grecian profile tilted up to gaze at the young Indian man dressed in a black leather jacket in blue jeans. "Well, what's your opinion, you old dog?"
Coyote, Oberon's Child that had become a trickster god to the Southwestern Native Americans, grinned down at her. "All this?" He gestured grandly. "A modern fertility rite set to rock 'n roll. It's religious."
"Not your religion," she mocked.
"Nor yours, Priestess of Apollo. But you're enjoying it anyway."
Cassandra laughed. "You can't judge me by my titles. I'm a mass of contradictions."
Puck grinned inside his own mortal disguise. Half-gargoyle, half-Third Race, raised by the human priests of Apollo in the city of Troy, and trained in magic by the greatest trickster in Oberon's Court; a mass of contradictions didn't begin to describe it.
"I still think you ought to reveal your true self," Coyote continued as he plopped onto the grass beside her.
"I don't think this crowd would scream demon. But I'd miss all the music in stone sleep. Besides, would you show them your true form?"
"When I haven't broken this form in yet?"
Cassandra's face shifted oddly, needing her brow ridge in place to make sense of the expression. "It looks good on you."
"Yeah, Peter is a handsome young man. You look good as a human too."
"It's fun to watch, isn't it?" A lilting voice interrupted Puck's spying. He turned. A girl that looked between seventeen and twenty stood next to him. Her long black hair was a mass of tight ringlets. Her gray-blue eyes framed by dark lashes, twinkled with mischief. A bright yellow sun was painted on her right cheek. She smiled up at him, about half-a-foot shorter than his height in this current disguise.
"I don't want them to know I'm watching them. I'm not supposed to care that much." He grinned at her. His mortal disguise was handsome by this sub-culture's standards: shoulder-length brown hair with a rough wave and a goatee of the same length that he tied a bow around. Greenish hazel eyes twinkled down at her.
"Really? Why not make them worry about you instead?" It wasn't a question, not when she took hold of his hand. "I'm Bridget."
"Robin." He followed her lead back into the throng of people.
The rest of that day and the next one were a blur of music and frolic and pranks played on the musicians, the technicians, and the audience. Pranks the like of which he hadn't dreamed of in a hundred years. He lost Cassandra and Coyote in the mass of humanity and found he didn't miss their company as long as Bridget was by his side.
He fell asleep that night and awoke on the last morning of the festival before she did. He rolled over in the tent, propped himself up on his elbow, and looked down at her sleeping face. Something was wrong. Alarm beat massive wings inside his chest as he sat up. Bridget's skin was growing a waxy cold. Her eyes had rolled up showing only white. Her breathing was shallow and just as rapid as her pulse. He could feel her life presence ebb away.
"No, no, no! Bridget!" An unfamiliar panic caused his arms to seize her and pull her close to his chest. He grappled with the raw magical energy at his command and willed it to heal her.
Stronger magic than his slammed it down. "Oberon's blasted non-interference policy!" He swore under his breath in the other languages he knew as he laid her back down on the blankets. "I'll be right back, Bridget. Please hold on. Please." He vanished quickly.
He reappeared inside Cassandra's tent. He grabbed the blue-jean leg extending from a pile of blankets. The owner of the leg screeched in a pale human imitation of a gargoyle roar and clawed her way to the surface. She didn't recognize the lanky human man with long brown hair and a long goatee with a bow tied around it under his chin. Cassandra's eyes appeared to go red--despite her transformation into a human--and she lunged at him with fingers extended like talons and a growl escaping her throat.
"Heel, girl! It's me!" He dropped the mortal facade. The lanky human's features shifted and remolded into his usual hawk-like profile. The brown goatee pulled back into his hairless chin. The shoulder-length, wavy brown hair straightened and grew even longer, changing to white as it did so. He lost some height and let his clothes shift back to his normal attire of colorful tights and a toga-ish tunic.
Cassandra's eyes returned to the green human ones she was wearing and blinked. "Puck? What's going on?"
"Can't a god get any sleep around here?" Coyote's petulant voice made its way from underneath a hand-woven blanket.
Puck grabbed hold of Cassandra's hand. "Come with me." He brought her back to Bridget's tent. "Help her, please. I can't. Please, Cassandra, I've never asked you for anything. Never, not in nearly three thousand years of knowing you."
She ignored his babbling and put her hand on Bridget's stomach. A green glow surrounded the human girl. Cassandra's voice was distorted through her magic use, but he could still hear the worry and confusion in it. "She put this poison into her body deliberately?"
"They use stuff to reach an altered state of consciousness," Puck explained distractedly. "Crazy habits of humans."
"This is more than a habit for her. It's a need, a craving she can't fight. It will kill her."
Panic cinched Puck's chest. "No, you have to save her. You have to! You can get around Big Daddy Oberon's stupid edict!" He clenched his fists.
"I can save her now. But I see her death, self-inflicted through this poison." Cassandra's eyes began to glow green matching the magic energy surrounding Bridget.
"Never trust the words of a Greek." But his insides felt like ice.
"I'm Trojan, Trickster. And I don't need any magic to see her fate."
"No. No, she won't die like that. Your visions don't come true. I'll save her."
Bridget took a deep breath without any aid. Cassandra allowed the green energy to recede back into her body. She turned and faced her mentor as the human in the tent moved into true sleep. "There is much I've seen you do. But I do not believe this is in your power."
Puck's face twisted into a scowl. "Is it really any of your business what I do with my time? I reached the age of consent eons before you hatched." A sudden fear of a visible lapse struck him. "She amuses me. You know how hard that is to find. Like a unicorn locator in this crowd."
Cassandra's back went ramrod straight. "It always comes back to that, doesn't it? Mortals are good for nothing else. I ought to stay and tell her what you really are."
"That hurts, it really does. Is that how well you trust me? I have never caused lasting harm to a mortal."
She ignored his aggrieved tone. "What about Bottom?"
"Donkey-head? Please, I cured that by morning. And it made him famous."
"Only because you told Shakespeare." She angrily tossed her black hair. "Forget it, you wouldn't understand. You and your kind are above those petty mortal emotions." She stood up as well as she was able in the cramped tent. "Your toy is fine now. But I won't fix her again for your amusement."
Puck couldn't find anything to say as she struggled with the zipper and left the tent. Cassandra was angry with him. Cassandra was never angry with him. Cassandra was never angry with him but she was angry and disappointed with him. It struck him as odd that he should care what she thought. Yet, he did care and he wanted her to be proud of him, as proud as he was of her.
Bridget moaned and her eyes fluttered open. Puck slipped on his facade before she fully awakened. "Robin? What happened?" Her voice was thick.
He scooted to her side and caressed her hair. "It's all right. I'm here. Everything's all right now."
Eerie Tower, Present Day
Owen forced himself out of the comfortable easy chair. He lurched to the wet bar set in the corner of his parlor. The water straight from the bottle soothed his parched throat temporarily. It did nothing to help him forget how she shook in his arms that day. But nothing ever did the curse of being a practically immortal being.
It relieved him to no end when Xanatos stopped questing after it. Puck would never talk anyone out of a foolish act, but Owen had tied his subtle best and had been ignored. Mortals needed limits. It's what gave them their spark, what made them human.
That cracked his stoic facade but the laughter was without mirth. He knew all too well that death gave some humans the ability to shine just a bit brighter.
San Francisco, 1970
He took great care in packing Robin's unnecessary belongings. It would be out of character to leave anything behind. Puck had been accused of many things during his long life, but no one could say that he broke character. After all, the play's the thing. He'd give the stuff away. Some of the hippie culture must have worn off on him, he realized with mixed feelings.
Bridget watched her brown-haired boyfriend with an air of someone who is determined to do the right thing but would much rather not. She sat on the edge of the bed and kicked her feet. "What's so special about that woman and her little girl? Why do you have to follow her to New York?"
Puck was proud of her. No giving into a jealous temper tantrum like the other female members of her race would have done over his newfound obsession with Anastasia Renard. Bridget was fae in her sensibilities, a fact she was completely unaware of and would stay that way. She understood that words and actions did not bind two people together and would not try to bind him with them. Which was good, because he didn't have the time to soothe wounded feelings. He never liked to end things on a sour note.
But she was waiting for his answer. "Anastasia Renard? She was the wife of a former boss of mine. I never expected her to remarry. So I want to see what's going on. That's all."
She stared at the floor. "So it's not because you like her better than me."
"Like her?" Puck thought briefly of the things Titania made him do as his Queen, things he had loathed. "Actually, she's not a very nice person. But I'm a slave to my insatiable curiosity."
"Oh." Her black curls fell forward, tumbling over her shoulders and obscuring her face. "As long as you're still my Robin."
He stepped closer to her. His long lean fingers tilted her chin up so she looked at him. "I will always be your Robin," he said huskily. Her thick curls twined around his fingers as he brushed them back. Their lips touched and melded.
Eerie Tower, Present Day
"It was only to make her feel better." He never liked leaving anyone devastated. Frustrated, annoyed, angry, and wiser were acceptable but never devastated.
Yet even as he whispered it to himself, he knew it was a lie. No, Bridget's fearsome temper that would ignite with devastation should not be sparked by someone as powerful in the mortal world as Anastasia Renard and so very powerful as Titania truly is. He was just looking out for Bridget. That's all.
Then why did it still hurt?
Cassandra's Island, 1971
Puck rid himself of all facades and relaxed in his fae shape. He levitated in the air in the center of Cassandra's living room, the main room of the former temple and caves that she had transformed into a home. A gilt-framed mirror floated in front of his face and he distorted the reflection inside, trying to find the perfect look for the nebulous character he was going to use to spy on Titania.
Cassandra had forgiven him after Woodstock and he wasn't sure why still. He refused to ask her. The expression of pain that filled her face whenever he mentioned Bridget and himself raked him as painfully as her talons would. He left the subject dropped.
It hadn't taken much cajoling to get her help crafting this new persona. The gargoyle blood in her made it hard to give up vengeance. And how Titania had dealt with Troy and Oberon's offspring Helen and Apollo would leave a need of vengeance in anyone's soul.
She sat in a chair near the fireplace, her black wings caped around her shoulders and her tail slipped through the slot of the chair. She read the papers he had jotted him notes on. The red-orange glow from the flames flickered over her silver skin. She set the papers on her lap. "I think you should throw out the scientist part."
"But Cyberbiotics is a scientific firm. Titania's persona and that guy she's married to are both scientists."
"Precisely. They've given their lives to studying science. And you know Titania never does anything halfway. You're not a man of science; you'd never be able to remember enough of it to be convincing."
Puck frowned as he rolled over on his back. "I am too a man of science. I threw that apple at Newton." He ignored her disbelieving smirk and rolled back on his stomach. He went rapidly through twenty different noses on the reflection before finally asking, "What do you suggest?"
"Nobody has those anymore. Besides, I want to be in the middle of everything. That's where the fun is."
"If you made yourself indispensable, you would be in the middle of everything," Cassandra argued. "And just because no one uses a seneschal anymore, doesn't mean the need isn't there."
"You maybe onto something." He sat up in the air and crossed his feet in a lotus position. He snapped his fingers in disgust and the mirror disappeared. "Why is it so hard to put this character together? It has to be flawless to fool Titania."
Cassandra was silent for so long Puck almost thought she had turned to stone. "Maybe you don't want to give up your other persona."
He considered that quiet suggestion. Cassandra stared into the fire. "I miss her," Puck said softly. "She's supposed to be here, be a part of this. But she can't."
"Aren't you the one who told me that you only have a chance for love once or twice in a lifetime? That you should fear nothing and grab that chance?"
He recognized his own advice from when she had met her mate. "But this is different."
Cassandra's laughter was short and goading. "The great and mighty Puck. Afraid of his own heart."
"Love is a sucker's game. I'm above all that." The words tried to catch in his throat but he got them out.
"You alone in all the universe." Cassandra's voice shook a little. "And I for one would pity you."
"You don't give pity to anyone."
"True, but I like you, Puck. Bridget has been good for you."
He felt something heavy wrap around his chest. "How would you know?"
Her tail stirred uneasily on the floor. "I spied on you."
"You've never gotten personally involved before, not of your own volition. I wanted to make sure I hadn't misjudged you." She gazed up at him; her black-pupiled eyes focusing on his bright blue ones. "I haven't. You should tell her the truth."
"It's never been done before. Not a lasting relationship."
"All the more reason to try."
Puck floated down and set his feet on the floor. "But what if she doesn't like the truth?"
"You're kidding, right? She'll get a kick out of it. She'll have as much fun playing as you do. Tell her, Puck."
He caved to her plea and felt immense pleasure and relief at doing so. "All right. You'll come with me?"
Cassandra's red lips drew up in a smile. "If you want me to."
San Francisco, 1971
So arrogant to just assume that the universe was going to kneel to your desires. Oh no, when you decide to play the Wheel of Fortune's game and offer your heart as the prize, you suffer the same as everyone else.
The cruel mocking laughter was only audible to Puck as he and Cassandra eased down the aisle. In the dimly lit space thick with the scent of flowers, he could hear the whispers. He paid them no mind as he looked down into the satin-lined box.
He could see the damage done to her beautiful face, even though it had been carefully hidden by make-up. Her long black lashes hid her dove-gray eyes. Her massive curly black hair was spread on the white satin pillow like wings. She wore her favorite green dress, a deep forest green made of cotton. Soft hymns played over hidden speakers-traditional stuff she never wanted.
Cassandra in her human guise stood back and shielded him from the others present. Was this how she felt when he mate died: cold, heavy and hollow inside all at the same time? He could feel the hostility to their hippie personas. He felt like dropping pretenses and showing them the true reality. But it would be a hollow victory when the one he wanted to understand was now forever out of his reach.
She would have hated this spectacle. He touched her right cheek and let the magical energy brush across her cold skin. The green slow was barely visible and left a painted yellow sun when it faded. He bent further over the casket. "I will always be your Robin," he whispered before pressing his warm lips against her cold ones.
He turned and faced the hostile faces filling the pews of the chapel room. Hostile faces blurred in his swimming vision. But one face was clear, an infant girl sitting in the lap of a middle-aged woman going on eighty. They sat together with an angry embittered man on the front pew. The baby's bright blue eyes locked with Robin's hazel colored ones. Her round face dimpled into a grin and her mass of black baby curls danced around her ears as she giggled. Cassandra moved to take hold of him but he evaded her grasp. He ran down the aisle, out of the funeral home, and transported himself away from there as soon as he reached the parking lot.
Eerie Tower, Present Day
In some magical limbo place, he had screamed himself hoarse. And those screams echoed now in his mind. The ache never ended. He had used everything he knew to divert his attention from the pain: working for Renard, annoying Vogel, joining Xanatos. But the pain nestled inside was still there and larger than ever.
Cassandra had given him a scroll for when the pain became too much. And now it had reached that point. There was no escaping into the politics and fractions of Avalon. The amusement he had found in out-Vogeling Vogel had just about been used up. Where had he put it? He started searching his rooms as his mind filled with the first time he saw Preston Vogel.
It was almost time for his interview with Anastasia Renard and he still hadn't decided on a final form. He waited outside the Cyberbiotics building cloaked in invisibility and watched the people enter and exit to ignore the dull pain that had become his constant company. It didn't matter what form he chose, it would have the same deficiencies as Robin and Goodfellow and the countless others he had used. The character's emotions become Puck's emotions and Puck was left with the pain. He needed to be free of that-desperately free of that.
A dark haired man climbed out of a taxi and walked toward the main doors. A severe plain dark blue suit, ridiculous red bow tie, practical black-framed glasses over his brown eyes, a determined frown, a hawkish profile; Puck stared at him in fascination. Here was a human man who would let no emotions get in his way, if he had any at all. A lesson Puck needed to learn badly if he was going to survive Titania's presence.
He gave himself a suit of similar cut but a different shade of blue. He changed the bow tie to a red necktie. The black hair became blond, the eyes remained the same shade of blue that Puck's were, the glasses were changed to wire-rimmed ones, and of course the determined frown, mustn't forget that.
The receptionist gazed up at him with a slightly puzzled expression, as if she was trying to place him in her mind. "Can I help you?"
Puck cleared his throat slightly, finding the perfect combination of polite haughtiness and controlled precision. "Owen Burnett. I have an appointment with Mrs. Renard."
Eerie Tower, Present Day
He found the scroll. He pulled out the brown parchment from its hiding place and balanced it carefully on his leg with his stone fist as he broke the seal. He felt the magic backwash over him but as Owen there was nothing he could do to stop it. It took three tries before he could keep it unrolled to read it.
It was a poem, a stanza long, written in Greek with ink as old as the parchment yet still clearly legible. But his Greek was rusty, almost a thousand years rusty. Cassandra must have realized that language barriers could be a potential problem and thoughtfully provided an English translation beneath the Greek.
Sweetness of amour--all too brief--
bestows a thousand bitter regrets
to rue until time has its end.
Can passing time obliterate the pangs of grief
and mend a broken heart?
Does grief erase at all,
to only be remembered as
once upon a time?
Owen released the scroll and it rolled up on its own. Tears slid down his cheeks. He sat on the floor of his rooms as the ache consumed him. The fledging emotions he felt for others gave way to his guilt and grief.
The door opened and shut behind him. The familiar heavy tread of a gargoyle filled his ears between his sobs. She knelt behind him and wrapped her arms around him. Cassandra's wings wrapped around them next. She rocked him, repeating softly, "Let it go. Let her go. She doesn't want your pain."
Owen sobbed. And the aching pain grew smaller and more numb with each fallen tear.