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hold me tight and fear me not

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Alex made his way through the underbrush of the forest.

Tom’s words echoed through his mind as he walked. “Nobody in their right mind goes to Caterhaugh. That place is cursed, you’ll be bewitched by the fae and taken away before you can take as much as three steps inside.” He had said as much the first time Alex had asked him about the forest bordering the castle, and had repeated the sentiment every time Alex had brought it up since. Tom had a good head on his shoulders, and Alex usually trusted his advice.

Yet here he was, walking deeper and deeper into that very forest.

He wished he had a good reason why he was traveling into a haunted forest alone. But truthfully, he lacked one. Maybe it was the oppressive atmosphere of the castle, or maybe the short leash he was kept on within its halls, or maybe it was just because Tom and Jack were busy and Sabina hadn’t visited in months.

Or maybe it was the soft call Alex had felt from the moment he’d laid eyes on those twisted branches as a youth, a call that had only increased in volume with each passing year. A call beckoning him to come and lose himself in the woods of Caterhaugh.

Alex stepped over a log and grimaced. This was a mistake, he thought suddenly. He wasn’t sure he believed Tom’s fairy stories, but he did believe in the possibility of him getting lost, eaten by wild animals, or dying of exposure. He should really turn back now, while he still knew the way-

That was when he stumbled into the clearing.

The sunshine streamed in from above, seeming to set the whole clearing aglow, in stark contrast to the gloom of the preceding forest. Around him, an abundance of wildflowers sprung up from the grass, each in full bloom in a spectacular array of colors. Purple wild pansies, pink heather, and yellow marigolds all swayed gently in the wind, their sweet scents carried along with them. The most beautiful, though, were the brilliant orange roses in bloom around an ancient oak tree growing in the exact middle of the clearing.

Alex felt his breath leave him. It was stunning.

He began to move through the clearing, admiring the flowers and enjoying the cool breeze on his face. It was like a small slice of heaven, here on earth, and it was glorious.

Eventually, Alex came to a stop in front of the unusually colored roses growing at the foot of the tree. Jack would love one of these, Alex mused. Besides, nobody was going to believe that a place like this existed in Carterhaugh if he didn’t bring back proof.

Alex bent down and snapped the stem of a rose.

If there was an indication that something suddenly changed in the clearing, Alex only half noticed. He moved to pick a second rose.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” a voice rang out.

Alex froze, his fingers millimeters from the stem. Slowly, he straightened up to see a man standing beside the trunk of the tree. A man who had definitely not been there a second ago.

The man was dressed in all black finery, like a son of a noble, but his feet were noticeably bare. He had raven hair and heterochromatic eyes, one a vibrant, sky blue and the other a light, almost golden hazel. He was strikingly beautiful, but there was something unnatural about him. Otherworldly. When he tilted his head, there was a grace there that was beyond human.

Alex felt a jolt of fear as the realization hit him. This man was of the fae.

The man’s arms were crossed as if with displeasure, but he was looking at Alex with something like curiosity. “What are you doing here? No mortal may go by Carterhaugh without my leave.”

Alex couldn’t help but scoff. “The entire Rider estate was left to me by my uncle when he died. That includes Caterhaugh. So technically, you’re the one trespassing on my land.”

The fae man smirked. “Do I look like one beholden to mortal law to you?”

“It would seem not,” Alex remarked. Then he remembered Tom’s stories of the fae, their capricious and vindictive nature and their disdain towards mortal interlopers that was often fatal. He took a step back, gripping the rose tightly. “Listen, obviously there’s been a mix-up. I’ll leave you be. I’m, um, sorry for disturbing you.”

“Wait a moment,” the fae man said, holding a hand up. “Are you really going to try to leave without paying?”


“For the rose,” the fae man said, gesturing to the flower in Alex’s hand. “They belong to me, and in fact, are quite special. I cannot allow you to simply leave with one without the proper payment for it.”

Alex swallowed. “It-It’s ok. I don’t need it anyway. You can have it back-”

The fae man’s smile widely. Alex wondered if it was a trick of the lighting, or if he somehow possessed a different number of teeth than the average mortal. “I’m afraid it doesn’t exactly work like that, friend. You picked the rose and claimed ownership over it. Now you must pay for it.”

Alex took another step backward. “What sort of payment do you mean, exactly?”

The man blinked, but it seemed like an intentional act, one he wasn’t used to doing involuntarily. “Nothing malicious, I assure you. You simply must spend a day here in this grove with me.”

“Why? What do you get out of that?” Alex asked, frowning. This wasn’t right. Fae asked for your firstborn, or your “maidenhood,” or something meaningful like that. Not for quality time. There had to be some sort of trick behind it. “Is this one of those things where a day here equates to seven years or something in the mortal world? Because I would prefer not to put my friends through that, thanks.”

“If I had that sort of power, you would not have been able to enter the grove in the first place,” the man remarked dryly. Then he shook his head. “No, a day here is a day anywhere else. The only stipulation is that you spend it in this clearing.”

He hadn’t answered his original question, Alex noted. But there was something in the fae’s eyes, an emotion Alex couldn’t name, that made his heart twinge. Something that made him want to stay, despite his misgivings.

“Well, if that’s really it…” He shrugged and sat down among the wildflowers. The fae man looked at him with something like surprise. “Might as well get comfortable, right?”

The man stared at Alex like he hadn’t expected him to give in without more of a fuss. Or maybe he simply wasn’t used to dealing with mortals. Alex wondered how many people stumbled across this clearing before him, or if he was the first this fae man had ever caught here.

Hesitatingly, the man sat down across from Alex. “Indeed.”

Figuring he might as well make the most of the situation, Alex smiled at him. “Before you ‘ask’ for my name or something like that, I should tell you that they call me Alex.”

The man stared at him a second longer, then gave him an amused smile. “I have no use for your name, Alex. But thank you for telling me. I am called Artemis.”

“Artemis.” The name was sharp on Alex’s tongue. “Good name for a fae.”

Something in Artemis’s smile shifted. “My parents must have thought so as well.”

Alex laid back on the grass, crossing his arms behind his head and gazing up at the sky. There were only a few clouds to be seen, but the weather was nice and the breeze was comfortable. There were worse ways to spend a day. “This is a nice place you’ve got here.”

“Thank you,” Artemis said. “I’m quite fond of it myself. I’ve worked hard to keep it this way.”

Alex glanced over at him, curious. “You made this place like this? It’s beautiful.”

Artemis laughed softly in a surprisingly genuine way. “You could say that it is an extension of myself, in more ways than one.”

Alex could feel himself blush. If he’d called the fae man beautiful by extension, it was unintentional but, well, it was true. “Oh. Uh, neat,” he said lamely, then silently cursed himself.

Artemis sighed. “I just like to keep it bright, even if the rest is surrounded by darkness.”

There it was again, that emotion in Artemis’s eyes that Alex just couldn’t place. It drew him in, made him want to know more, to open up the doors to his world and save him from whatever it was that put that expression on his face.

Alex quickly turned away. The fae were supposed to be alluring, but this was something else. Something that made his heart beat loud enough he was almost certain Artemis could hear it.

Maybe it was all a trick, but a part Alex wasn’t sure he minded.

A relaxed silence descended between them. Alex absently stared up at the clouds, enjoying the sunshine on his face and the occasional buzzing of a nearby bee. He could hear Artemis breathing next to him, and Alex found himself wondering what was going through his head. What did he think of this strange mortal who had disturbed his home?

Eventually, the sun began to sink towards the horizon, and Artemis cleared his throat. “The day is ending. You’re free to go, Alex.”

Alex stretched and sat up. “Just like that?”

Artemis met his eyes. “Just like that. I keep my bargains.” He stood up, offering a hand to Alex.

Alex took it and stood. Artemis’s hand was soft and smooth, almost unnaturally so. And it was cold, like touching a marble statue. But Alex found himself wanting to prolong the contact all the same.

Artemis held onto his hand for a fraction of a second longer than necessary, then pulled away. “Farewell. Take care of yourself, and refrain from walking alone in these woods from now on. I’m not the only creature out here.”

“Right. Will do.” Alex smiled. “Nice to meet you, Artemis.”

Artemis stared at him for a long time, that odd emotion flickering across his eyes again. “…Nice to meet you too, Alex.”

It was only when Alex was exiting the woods of Caterhaugh that he recognized the emotion that was plaguing Artemis’s eyes.

It was loneliness.

When Alex returned to the Caterhaugh clearing the next day, Artemis was nowhere to be seen.

“Artemis?” Alex called, somewhat apprehensive. Maybe all of yesterday had been a dream or the product of a bored imagination. Or maybe it had been some sort of practical joke, and this Artemis wasn’t at all who (or what) he said he was and Alex had been had.

But then a familiar form stepped out from behind the oak tree, arms crossed. “What on earth are you doing here?” Artemis asked, brow furrowed. “Didn’t you hear me yesterday? You’re free to go.”

“I know,” Alex said with a shrug. “I just wanted to see you again, that’s all.”

Artemis looked at him in disbelief. “You wanted to see me.”

“Is that so hard to believe?” Alex took a step forward. “Something tells me that behind all your posturing and dramatics, that you’re lonely and need a friend. That’s why you had me stay yesterday. You weren’t draining my mortal essence or whatever. You just wanted company.”

Artemis’s lips curled into a sneer. “You seem to know a lot about me, mortal.”

“I recognize it because I’ve seen it in myself,” Alex said quietly, freezing the look on Artemis’s face. “And I don’t think anybody deserves to feel like that, human or not. So yeah, I want to be your friend. If you’ll let me.” He extended a hand.

Artemis eyed it warily. “And what do you gain from this?”

“The same thing you gained by sitting with me yesterday. Not everything’s a give and take, Artemis.” Alex said.

Artemis hesitated, then reached out and shook Alex’s extended hand with his own cold one. “Very well then.”

Alex smiled. “You won’t regret it.”

The fae raised his eyebrows. “That,” he said, “Remains to be seen.”

The next day, Artemis was waiting for him when he arrived.

“You really intend to do this, don’t you?” Artemis asked, staring at him like he was some sort of exotic creature.

Alex smiled cheerfully and plopped down on the grass. “I keep my bargains,” he said in his best imitation of Artemis’s accent, earning him a snort that made Alex’s grin widen.

Artemis sat down next to him, mirth fading from his face. “Your people will start to notice, you know, and they’ll talk. They’ll say you’re fae-struck, mesmerized by one of our kind. Or maybe that we took the real you into our world and left a duplicate behind. They’ll come to these woods and burn them to the ground.”

“I really don’t care what people say,” Alex responded with a shrug, “As for the forest, well, as I said, this is technically my land. I won’t let them come near the place.”

Artemis smiled humorlessly. “You forget the strength of the mistrust your people have of mine. For good reason, I might add.”

“You’re not like them,” Alex said softly.

“You don’t know me,” Artemis said, expression darkening.

Alex gave him a small smile. “Not yet, at least.”

Artemis gave him a sideways glance. “I’m not sure you want to know.”

“Try me.”

Artemis was silent for a long moment, then looked away. “No. Another time, perhaps.”

Alex was dying to know more but held his tongue. He was already invading Artemis’s private sanctum by simply being here. He deserved the rest of the privacy Alex could give him, even if it hindered communications between them somewhat. He would talk more when he was ready.

Instead, Alex laid out on his back and closed his eyes. “Fair enough.”

They talked little for the rest of the day, but the silence between them was more than comfortable.

They settled into a routine that spring. Alex would slip away whenever he found the time and come to Artemis’s clearing in Caterhaugh. They would spend the time together until Alex eventually had to head back home. Sometimes they only had a few hours together, sometimes almost the entire day. It always was too short in Alex’s mind. Perhaps it was the magical nature of the clearing, but time seemed to pass differently there, despite Artemis’s statements to the contrary.

“What do your friends think you’re spending all your time doing?” Artemis had asked one day. “Surely they’ve noticed your absence.”

Alex had blushed. “I told Tom and Jack that I met the son of a hunter in the woods and am, um, seeing him. They’re happy for me. Or maybe they’re just happy I’m getting out of the castle. Tom is still suspicious of Caterhaugh and all, but he seems satisfied I’m being careful.”

Alex had expected Artemis to scoff at that or make some sort of snarky comment, but when he glanced at the fae man, his face had turned red.

“That’s… a good of an excuse as any,” Artemis had said, coughing lightly.

Alex hadn’t missed the lingering glance Artemis had given him when he thought Alex had turned away. He told himself that the longing he thought he saw there was a product of wishful thinking.

Artemis still revealed very little about himself, so Alex began to pass the time by talking about his own life. About his parents’ deaths before he could even remember them, to some sort of accident Alex hadn’t realized was suspicious until he was much older. About being raised by his uncle, whose long periods of absence had led to him hiring Jack as a governess and caretaker. About meeting Tom when his parents had brought him to the castle with him as they worked in the kitchen, and the fast friendship they had formed. About the visits from Sabina and her family. About the similarly suspicious death of his uncle when he was a teenager, and the takeover of the Rider estate by a man named Blunt, who would run the estate until Alex came of age. About how Blunt kept him on a tight leash and saw him more as a pawn to advance his own ventures than as a person in his own right.

“But you must have come of age several years ago,” Artemis interjected at one point. “Why does Blunt still run your estate?”

Alex grimaced and looked away. “…A stipulation of my uncle’s will. I have to marry before I’m considered capable to run the estate. A goal I’m afraid I’ve never made much progress towards. I don’t want to marry just anybody, much less any of the people Blunt has picked out for me in the past.”

Artemis’s face did something complicated. “I’m… sorry to hear that. You deserve to be treated better. Have you tried challenging the will?”

“There’s no point. It’s not a fight I could win. It’s something I suppose I’ll have to suck up and do eventually, I guess. But not yet.” Alex gave him a small smile. “Thanks for your concern, though. It’s sweet.”

Artemis blushed again and looked down at his hands. “We’re friends, right? That’s what they’re supposed to do, I gather.”

“It is,” Alex said, smile widening.

He would later wonder if that was the point he started wanting something deeper with Artemis than the friendship he had originally desired.

The days began to lengthen. Artemis began to talk more, not about himself, but about the clearing, which he clearly loved very deeply. He taught Alex the names of the plants he didn’t know and the uses of the ones he did. This beautiful flower was actually deathly poisonous, while this unremarkable weed could be ground and boiled into a drink that invigorated even the most weary. He began to learn the insects that pollinated the flowers too, from the tiny and vibrant sweat bees to the lithe and angular honey wasps. Normally, Alex would shy away from the stinging insects, but nothing in this clearing seemed interested in harming him. He wondered if that was Artemis’s influence.

Artemis never spoke of the roses, and Alex didn’t press him, despite his growing curiosity. Clearly, Artemis valued them above all the other plants in the grove. And given Alex’s experience, they were also magical in some way. But Artemis firmly avoided the subject as much as he avoided the subject of his own past. Perhaps they were tied in some way Alex couldn’t yet fathom. But Alex was too afraid of breaking this thing they’d built to risk recklessly asking.

Gradually Artemis, who had been sitting a ways away from where Alex typically lay, began to move closer and closer, until one day Alex looked over and realized with a start that Artemis was sitting only a few centimeters away, close enough to reach out and touch without a second thought. He barely resisted the impulse to do so.

Alex’s face burned as he sat up suddenly. Artemis was looking at him with something like concern, so he cleared his throat and said quickly “Artemis. I’ve been wondering. It’s only the roses in this clearing that I can’t pick, right?”

Artemis’s expression grew guarded. “…That’s right.”

“Excellent.” Alex began to pick a handful of the most beautiful wildflowers he could find, stem and all. It had been since he was a child since he’d done this, but he was pretty sure he remembered the gist of how to do it.

Artemis watched him curiously as he began to intertwine the stalks together. “What are you-?”

“You’ll see,” was all Alex said as he worked. It took probably longer than it should have, but eventually, Alex was satisfied with the final product.

“Hold still,” he said softly.

Artemis remained unnaturally frozen as Alex gently placed the flower crown on his head.

Alex swallowed as his fingers lingered by Artemis’s face. Fuck, he looked beautiful. And he always did, Alex realized with an internal start. Not just in his supernatural, fae way, but in the uniquely Artemis way that kept Alex coming back, day after day. The way he scrunched his nose up when he laughed, or the sparkle in his eyes as he talked about his favorite flowers. All the moments that took Alex’s breath away, made his heart beat harder than he had ever known it to. That was Artemis, beautiful and riveting and clever and-

Oh, fuck, Alex thought in a moment of realization.

Slowly, Artemis reached up and pressed Alex’s hand to his cheek with his own, warm against his cool skin. Alex could feel him swallow underneath him.

Their eyes held for several seconds. Then their lips met.

Artemis’s lips were soft underneath his, and the longer they kissed, the warmer they grew. Alex slid his fingers upward until they were tangled in his raven hair. It felt even silkier than Alex had imagined. His other hand pulled Artemis closer until he was practically in his lap. Artemis muttered his name into his mouth and Alex felt himself melt utterly into the kiss, losing himself in the divinity of it all.

Eventually, though, he had to breathe, even if Artemis didn’t. Alex pulled away with no small reluctance, panting slightly and resting his forehead contentedly against Artemis’s. “I think,” he said, “That I’ve wanted to do that for a while now.”

Artemis was blushing deeply, but he looked just as pleased as Alex did. “I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel the same.”
Alex couldn’t stop the grin that spread across his face. “God, you’re magnificent.”

Artemis gave him a helpless yet amused look. “I think you should look in the mirror more often, then.”

Alex laughed and dropped back down into the flowers, pulling a startled Artemis with him. “I would rather just kiss you again.”

Artemis smiled. “That,” he said, “I would be happy to allow.”

That summer was a paradise.

They were together every second they could manage, drinking in the moments they could steal with each other. Alex wove more flower crowns and eventually taught Artemis how to make them as well. They lay together among the flowers, arms around each other. Alex thought those were his favorite moments, those quiet hours when Artemis would rest his head on his chest and Alex would stroke his hair and they could pretend like they were the only people in the world that existed.

Alex wished he could live in those moments for the rest of time.

A part of him knew that mortal lovers of the fae never had happy endings. Something always went wrong, someone always betrayed. At the very least, he was doomed to grow old and die, while Artemis would remain completely changeless.

Alex pushed those thoughts to the back of his head. They were challenges they could deal with when they got there. Right now, all he wanted was as much time with Artemis as he could possibly get. That was what was important.

Sooner or later, though, summer had to end.

It was mid-fall when Alex stormed his way into Caterhaugh’s enchanted glade.

Artemis must have sensed his anger because he appeared immediately. “Alex. What’s wrong?” In the back of his mind, Alex noted that something seemed to be off with the fae, but he was too full of rage to properly process that information.

Alex pushed past him and began to pace the clearing. “I can’t fucking believe this…” he grumbled, scowling. “The sheer audacity-!”

“Alex,” Artemis said sharply. His expression softened when Alex turned to face him. “What is it?”

Alex stopped pacing and made a frustrated gesture with his hands. “It’s Blunt. He’s demanded I find someone to marry by the end of October or forfeit my right to my inheritance.”

Artemis’s eyes lit up with a cold fury, which would have been a delightful mix of intimidating and attractive in any other situation. “He can’t do that to you.”

“He can and he will,” Alex said grimly. “And he’ll get away with it. I don’t doubt it for a second.”

“Bastard,” Artemis muttered. He took a step towards Alex, then stopped, expression pained. “You don’t have much time, then.”

Alex frowned. “What?”

“To find a spouse, I mean. You need to hurry.”

Alex looked away. “That’s the thing,” he said quietly. “I don’t want to find a spouse.”

He could feel Artemis’s eyes burning into him. “What are you talking about?”

“Because I’ve already found the person I want to be with. And they’re not outside of these woods.”

The clearing was deathly silent. He could hear Artemis inhale sharply and the rustle of plants. When Alex looked up, he was steadying himself against the trunk of the oak, face obscured from his view.

“Artemis?” Alex called, heart hammering. This was it. He’d acted too soon, he’d scared the other man off, he’d overestimated how much his feelings were requited-

“You don’t know what you’re saying,” Artemis said, voice strained.
Alex straightened. “I know exactly what I’m talking about. I’m in love with you, Artemis, and I don’t want anybody else.”

“And how are you so certain that you haven’t just been fae-struck?” Artemis asked. He was trying to sound cruel, but all Alex could hear in his voice was bitterness.

Alex took a deep breath. “Because you’re in love with me too.”

Artemis froze, and for a moment, Alex was afraid that he’d go too far. But then Artemis slowly turned to look at him. His expression was turbulent.

“…I used to be human, you know,” he said quietly, startling Alex. Those had not been the words he had been expecting to hear.

“What? How-?”

The words came slowly, like they were painful to say, but Artemis didn’t stop. “I was fascinated by the fae as a child. I learned everything there was to know about them, from folklore to superstition. One day I went out into the woods looking for them, but they found me first. I was taken into their realm. They said I had been coming too close to figuring out their secrets and needed to be silenced before I could tell other mortals. The Queen would have killed me then and there if another fae, sympathetic to my plight, hadn’t given me her eye and thus turned me into one of them.” He tapped his hazel eye. “The Queen was less than thrilled. She condemned me to this glade, tying its lifeforce and its roses to mine so that I could never leave. I made it beautiful, but a golden prison is still a prison. So here I lived, alone, until you stumbled into my life.”

Alex swallowed. “How long has it been since they took you?”

“Seven years,” Artemis said, sighing.

Alex moved forward until he was standing right in front of Artemis, mind racing. He reached out and clutched both of Artemis’s hands in his own. “You said you were kidnapped as a child. But you’ve obviously aged since then.”

Artemis’s brow furrowed as he looked down at himself. “…I suppose I have. Time passes differently for me, though.”

Alex shook his head. “Don’t real fae not age, though? There must be a part of you that’s still human, a part of you that can break free from her control!”

Artemis smiled sadly. “I find that hard to believe, Alex. I’m something else, now, and that can’t be changed.”

Alex gritted his teeth. “Then let them change me too, dammit! I don’t want to be without you.”

Artemis jerked away, eyes widening in horror. “You have no idea what you’re asking. I won’t allow it.”

“If you can’t leave, then I’ll stay here with you,” Alex said stubbornly.

Artemis crossed his arms. “Absolutely not. You run enough risk coming here as often as you do.”

Alex reached out and tenderly placed his hand on Artemis’s cheek. “I’d be willing to take that risk.”

Artemis closed his eyes for a long moment, then opened them and stepped back. “It’s impossible.” He pursed his lips. “There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you. This is the last time you will be seeing me.”

The words hit Alex like a blow to the chest. “What? Is it because of what I said? Because-”

“It has absolutely nothing to do with you,” Artemis said forcefully. Then he looked away. “So don’t… Don’t blame yourself for what is going to happen. It isn’t your fault, and I wouldn’t have you live with the idea that it was.”

Alex swallowed. Whatever words Artemis was going to say next made his stomach churn with a newfound fear. “Artemis. Tell me what’s going on. Whatever it is, we work a way out of it, I promise.”

Artemis laughed sadly. “Oh, mortals. Always so sure they can rush in and let true love save the day.”

“You used to be a mortal,” Alex reminded him softly.

Artemis’s face hardened. “Not anymore. Not for a long time. And you can’t save me, Alex, no matter what you try. This isn’t some ballad or story for children. True love isn’t going to cut it here.”

“True love. Do you really think we…?” Alex trailed off, uncertain if he really wanted to know the answer.

Artemis bit his lip. His expression was such that Alex desperately wanted to just take him in his arms and kiss him right there. “…Fae, we- we have a sense for these sorts of things. I’ve known for some time.”

“And you didn’t tell me?” Alex said, unable to hide the hurt in his voice.

Artemis made a frustrated noise. “It would not have made any difference. I cannot change my fate. It was a mistake enough to have things go as far as they did.”

Alex’s face stung. “So that’s all I am to you? Some kind of mistake?”

Artemis was quiet for a beat. Then he sighed. “… No. Not in the slightest. The time I’ve spent with you has made me the happiest I’ve been since I took this shape.”

Alex wasn’t sure if he wanted to kiss him or shake him. “So what’s the issue, then?”

“The issue is that every seven years our Queen pays what she calls a ‘tithe to Hell.’ It’s little more than an excuse for her to get rid of political rivals or simply people she doesn’t like, but it is a time-honored tradition and those seven years are up.”

The grim pieces clicked together in Alex’s mind. “She’s going to sacrifice you,” Alex said, aghast.

Artemis grimaced. “Essentially, yes. I already told you she dislikes my presence among the fae. This is the perfect opportunity to get rid of me in a way that won’t create a stir with the Court.”

Alex’s mouth was dry. “Isn’t there something you can do to stop it? Anything at all?”

There was an almost imperceptible pause before Artemis spoke. “No. There’s nothing that can be done.”

“Fuck, Artemis, you can’t just give up like this! You’re the most clever person I know. Surely there’s some catch, some trick in the language or something that you can exploit to get out of it. Isn’t there always something like that in fae law?” Alex pleaded.

Artemis gave him a look. “Believe me, I’ve tried. None of it worked. She has me too tightly bound. Besides, I never cared much about that fate until…” He trailed off.


“Until I met you,” Artemis confessed. “I used to keep going for the sake of the family I was taken from, that we might one day be reunited, but I gave up on that hope a long time ago. You were the one to give me a reason again.”

“Artemis…” Alex breathed. Then he closed the distance between them and kissed him fiercely. Artemis kissed him back, clutching at him tightly. Like he never wanted to let him go.

“I’ll fight them all off,” Alex muttered between kisses. “Every single one that tries to come for you. I won’t allow it.”

Artemis pulled away and put his hands on Alex’s cheeks. His own were wet. “You’re far too noble. More than I deserve. But you won’t be doing any such thing.” He kissed him again, softer this time, then straightened up and raised his chin. Alex was reminded of the men he’d seen being marched to the gallows. “Thank you, Alex, for everything. I know you’ll find someone else who loves you as much as I do someday. I will think about you to the last.”

Alex fell to his knees. “Wait, Artemis, please-”

But Artemis had already vanished.

Alex couldn’t sleep that night. He spent hours pacing his chambers, wracking his brain through the fairy stories Tom loved to tell him when they were children for some sort of way to save Artemis. But nothing he could think of seemed like it would work.

He was so absorbed in his thoughts that he didn’t see the woman until she spoke.

“Alex Rider,” she said, making him jump out of his skin.

He whirled around to see a small woman perched on his windowsill. She had dark skin and close-cut auburn hair. Though the candles in his room cast a dim light, Alex could still clearly make out her eyes. One light blue, one hazel.

“You should keep something iron over your entryways,” she commented as she hopped down from the sill. “Not all of my people are as well-intentioned as me or Artemis.”

Alex swallowed. “You’re fae.”

“Of course,” she said, “And you’re Artemis’s lover.”

Alex felt his face grow red. “I- I mean- I wouldn’t put it exactly like that, but-”

The fae woman gave a similar too many toothed smile to Artemis’s. “I’ll take that as a yes.”

Alex coughed a few times, then tried to regain his composure. “You- You’re the fae that saved him all those years ago. You have his eye.” He felt like he was saying something extraordinarily obvious, but was relieved when she didn’t look at him like he was a complete idiot.

“That fae has a name. Call me Holly.” Her expression sobered. “And yes, I saved Artemis once. And I intend to save him again, if you’ll help me.”

“I’ll do anything,” Alex said immediately. “Just tell me what to do.”

Holly sat down on the edge of his bed and gestured for Alex to join her. “Quickly, then. We don’t have much time before my absence is noticed.”

Alex sat next to her. “What can we do? Artemis said there was no way to save him.”

Holly rolled her eyes. “Of course he did, the self-sacrificing idiot. Some part of him thinks he deserves this. I think otherwise, and I’m sure you do too.”

Alex looked down at the hands that had been holding Artemis only hours before. “He deserves the world,” he muttered, more to himself than to Holly.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Holly continued. “This way isn’t without risk, which is probably another reason he didn’t tell you about it. But we just might be able to pull it off.”

Alex thought of Artemis’s smile, sharp yet sweet, strange yet beautiful. He would do anything to see that smile again. “I’m willing to take that risk.”

Holly gave a huff of a laugh. “I haven’t even told you what it is yet.” She leaned forward. “Before the sacrifice tomorrow, there’ll be a procession at midnight. It goes through the village nearest here. Artemis will be wearing white and on the traditional white steed. Your job will be to lay in wait until he passes by, then pull him off of his horse.”

Alex frowned. “How do I avoid being spotted? The village is pretty open.”

“If memory serves, there’s a large bush in the local churchyard. My kind abhor holy spaces, so no one will spare it a second glance. Get into place before nightfall and you should be set.”

Alex knew the place, though he hadn’t stepped foot in the church since his uncle had died. “And what happens if they do spot me?”

Holly grimaced. “Then our Queen will probably turn you into a worm or the like or the rest of your mortal life. That is, if you’re lucky. She doesn’t take kindly to interlopers, as Artemis’s fate has probably indicated to you.”

“Right. Don’t get spotted,” Alex said, swallowing. “What do I do after I pull him off his horse?”

“That’s the tricky part. You have to hold onto Artemis and not let go, nor can you fear him.”

“That’s it?”

“Trust me, it’ll be harder than it sounds. She’ll turn him into a variety of creatures- a snake, a lion, a bear- all in an attempt to frighten you into letting go. If you do, though, you both will be lost forever. So hold him as tightly as possible and be unafraid, whatever may happen.” Holly looked at Alex. “Do you have a green cloak?”

In response, Alex rose and rummaged through his wardrobe. Eventually, he pulled out an emerald cloak that he’d worn a few times on special occasions. It wasn’t normally his style, but it did make an impression. “Will this work?”

Holly looked pleased. “That’s perfect. Wear it tomorrow night. Eventually, Artemis will turn into his human shape. He’ll be naked, so you’ll need to cover him with your cloak to complete your claim on him. Once you do, she’ll have no power over him anymore, and he’ll be free to go.”

Artemis free. It was strange to imagine him away from that clearing, out in the human world again. Is that something he wanted? And would he still want to be with Alex once that happened?

Alex cleared his thoughts with a shake of his head. Artemis had called him his true love. That kind of thing didn’t just go away. There were more important things to worry about right now than Alex’s insecurities.

Like keeping Artemis alive long enough for any of that to happen.

Holly was looking at him expectantly, so Alex forced himself to focus on the present. “Alright. I can do that.”

Holly let out a sigh of what must have been relief. “That’s what I wanted to hear.” She stood. “Tomorrow at nightfall. Don’t be late. And don’t forget we only have one chance at this. We have to get it right the first time, or all three of us are in serious trouble.”

Alex forced his smile to be more confident than he felt. “We’ll save him. I know we will.”

Holly met his smile, though if there was a touch of grimness to it, Alex didn’t comment. “That’s right.” She pulled herself up onto the windowsill. “Oh, and Rider?”

Alex didn’t even bother to ask how she had gotten ahold of his family name. “Yes?”

“Take care of him, will you? He deserves to be happy for once.”

“I will,” Alex said solemnly. “I swear it.”

Holly’s smile turned genuine. “Good. I’m holding you to that.”

Then she was gone, vanished without any evidence she had ever been there in the first place, leaving Alex alone with his jittery combination of nerves and hope.

I’m coming for you, Artemis.

The large bush in the courtyard was hardly the most comfortable place to spend the time, and Alex could swear that every prickly branch had somehow warped itself to stick into his skin. He’d been in place for hours now, and his legs were starting to cramp from crouching for so long. He’d also hardly slept the night before, so Alex could feel his eyes begin to drift closed every once and a while.

He pinched himself hard in the arm. Alex needed to be sharp, now more than ever. He could bear a bit of discomfort if it meant rescuing Artemis.

Alex wondered what this Queen was like. Holly had said her hold on Artemis would be broken once he wrapped him in his mantle, but would she still try to attack them? Could she order her entourage to do so? And what about Holly? Would she be punished for helping them? He hardly knew her, but she had saved Artemis’s life once before and was intent on saving it now. Alex didn’t want to see her harmed.

The church bells tolling midnight interrupted his thoughts. Alex straightened in his hiding spot, suddenly alert. It was time.

Slowly, a procession began to materialize out of the mists. At its head was a woman smaller than even Holly. She rode a silver steed and a silver circlet sat upon her intricately styled dark locks. From the regal yet smug way she carried herself, Alex guessed this was the queen Artemis and Holly had referenced. He scowled. If only there was some way to make her pay for the pain she had caused, but that wasn’t the point of tonight. Tonight was about saving his true love.

Alex impatiently watched the nobles of the Seelie Court pass him by. They were an odd bunch, of various sizes and anatomical structures, but they all carried a similar dignity about them and were covered in more finery than Alex had ever seen in his life. He caught a brief glimpse of Holly, looking somewhat uncomfortable on her dun mare. She was purposefully not looking in his direction. But she had been right. None of her compatriots even bothered to glance at the churchyard. He could probably be standing out in the open and they would scarcely notice.

Then, out of the gloom, Alex saw him. Artemis was on a white horse, just as Holly said, and his clothing was a similar pale shade. Despite everything, he still looked beautiful. His chin was held high and his posture was regal, more like a king riding through his domain than a condemned man on his way to his doom. Alex felt a surge of emotion. This had to work. He didn’t know what he’d do with himself if it didn’t.

Artemis was coming closer and closer by the second. Alex took a deep breath and readied himself.

Then he was right in front of him, almost close enough to touch.

Alex didn’t waste a second. He lunged forward out of the bush and grabbed Artemis by the waist.

“Alex-?” was all Artemis had time to say before he was pulled from the saddle and into Alex’s arms.

The momentum sent them both toppling to the earth. Alex managed to break Artemis’s fall with his own body. There was a brief flare of pain in his back, but it hardly mattered because Artemis was here, in his arms, breathing and alive.

“What on earth are you doing?” Artemis hissed, eyes wide with fear.

Alex kissed him. “Saving your life,” he muttered against his lips.

“I never asked-” Artemis stopped short as a commotion started towards the front of the procession. He swore in a language Alex didn’t recognize. “It’s too late, she’s noticed. You have to-”

That’s when the transformations began.

Later, when Alex tried to recall the event, all he could remember was a blur of scales and teeth and claws and fur, writhing in his arms. The shapes changed between each other so quickly that Alex could hardly register what they were before they shifted into another form. He changed into a newt, a wolf, even some sort of burning creature at some point. They howled, screamed, and tried to claw their way to freedom, but Alex held tight.

The only thing that didn’t change was Artemis’s eyes, the beautiful blue and hazel gazing up at him as the rest of his body were wracked with transformations. Alex focused all his attention on those eyes, letting himself get lost them. They calmed his rapidly beating heart, chasing the fear away and letting him hold on tight even when it felt like his arms were going to fall off.

“I’ve got you,” he muttered soothingly. “I’ve got you.”

Then, suddenly, he wasn’t looking at one hazel and one blue eye anymore, but two blue eyes, matched in their brilliance. Alex realized he wasn’t holding on to fur or scales anymore, but to warm, bare skin, shivering against him.

Alex immediately undid the clasp of his mantle and wrapped it tightly around the very human form of Artemis. He shuddered violently and buried his face in Alex’s shoulder as they sat up. Alex kept his arms wrapped tightly around him.

“We did it,” Alex said with no small amount of wonder.

Artemis looked up at him. He had lost that supernatural edge to his features, and when he moved, it was the slow and graceless motions of a mortal. In Alex’s opinion, however, Alex had never looked more beautiful than he did at that moment.

You did it,” Artemis said softly. “I never thought… I never thought I would take this form again, much less live through tonight.” He put a hand on Alex’s cheek. His hands were warm to the touch. “I don’t know how to thank you.”

Alex smiled and laced his fingers together with Artemis’s. “There’s no need. I did it because I love you.”

Artemis smiled. “I do believe I love you too.”

Alex leaned in to kiss him, but was interrupted by a barrage of angry shouting in that incomprehensible language the fae spoke to one another. He looked up in time to see the queen dismounting from her horse, expression murderous.

Fowl,” she hissed. “I should have known you would try to pull something tonight, you-”

Alex stood, positioning himself between her and Artemis. The man in question, however, stepped in front of Alex, straightening himself into that same regal bearing he had held himself with during the procession. There was a fire in him now, and Alex found he was grateful he wasn’t the subject of the glare that had come upon Artemis’s countenance.

“It’s too late, Opal. You’ve lost, and you have no power over either of us.”

The Queen’s lips curled in disdain. She raised her arms. “You’ll think otherwise when I’ve reduced you both to a pile of ashes.”

“He’s right, you know,” came Holly’s voice from what Alex realized was a growing crowd of fae onlookers. She stepped forward, and he realized with a start that her eyes were both hazel again. “The Old Laws dictate that his lover has won him his freedom and neither may be harmed.” She tilted her head. “Unless you think yourself above the Old Laws, of course.”

Opal looked around at the crowd, among which were the riders Alex had recognized as members of the Seelie Court. They were muttering amongst themselves and looking at her expectantly, some with increasing hostility. Her face scrunched up in a way that reminded Alex of a petulant toddler.

“I should have turned you into a tree all those years ago and saved myself the trouble,” she said, jabbing a finger at Artemis. Then she whirled and pointed at Alex. “And you,” Opal spat, “You will die a horrible, slow death. Mark my words, mortal, your time is not long for this earth.”

Alex took an involuntary step back, but Artemis took his hand. “She’s just posturing,” Artemis muttered. “She can’t actually do anything to either of us without risking her position in the Court.”

Opal turned away from them both, glaring at Holly. “I’ll deal with you later.”

Holly didn’t look bothered. “I’m sure you will, your majesty.”

Then the Queen snapped her fingers and the court snapped to attention. “Come. I grow weary of this. Brill, find us a goat or something for the tithe. The rest of you, we have a ceremony to begin.” She mounted her horse and trotted off without sparing another glance behind her.

One by one, the court turned and followed Queen Opal away from them. After a few minutes, Holly was the only fae left next to the churchyard.

“Holly,” said Artemis, voice thick. “You put this in motion, didn’t you?”

She smiled slightly. “It’s possible. Rider did most of the work, though.”

“I can’t thank you enough for everything you’ve done for me. I would have died years ago if not for you.”

Holly hugged him, causing Artemis to start. Then, slowly, he hugged her back. “Don’t mention it. Enjoy mortal life, ok? And all the perks that come with it.” She winked at Alex, who flushed.

Then she pulled away. “I need to get going. But I’ll visit whenever I can, so long as Rider keeps the iron off his doors.”

Artemis chuckled. “I can make sure of that.”

Then with a final grin, Holly mounted her steed and galloped off after the procession.

The churchyard echoed with the hoofbeats long after she was out of sight. Artemis took a deep breath, like he was steadying himself. “So, what are we going to do now?”

“Now? I get you back to the castle and get you into some actual clothes. Then we try to come up with a plausible story as to how my future husband appeared in the middle of the night for Blunt.”

Artemis turned a pleasing shade of pink. “Future husband? You really still want that?

“More than anything,” Alex said honestly. Then he hesitated. “That is, unless you don’t-”

“I do,” Artemis said quickly. “Very much so.”

Alex grinned with giddy delight. “Then it’s official.”

They kissed, deeply and sweetly and full of a newly found hope and love.

Far away in a glade of Caterhaugh, a grove of orange roses reached full blossom in the moonlight.