"Where is she," Cole bellowed, "where's Ruby?" Instinctually he could feel one of his hands balling into a wadded fist crowned with white knuckles. He expected to meet both Jace and Ruby within the secret meadow, but would have settled for just Ruby. Instead, he found himself vastly disappointed to be left with only Jace standing there, looking as dumb as usual.
"She's gone," Jace said flatly.
"Obviously! But where did she go?" Cole stormed his way over to Jace, stopping mid-stride as a pair of dainty arms halted him. Penelope was trying to hold him back, but it was too late and her attempt failed. The two were at each other, same as always, locked in a their perpetually contentious spar.
"She left...returned to the dragons. I don't blame her really, if her choice was between them or you." Jace deflected a swift jab, grinning with menace all the while. How he loved to stoke Cole's rage; it was like igniting the fuse of fey-made fireworks and waiting to watch them explode into a violent, prismatic disarray. "You're slower than usual."
Cole feinted a wide hook, swinging to throw off Jace's guard, then delivered a successful strike to his sternum. "I'll still kick your ass."
Jace stumbled back, air escaping his chest, but maintained his posture and raised a hand at his sister. "Don't interfere, Pen! If he wants to feel the might of the fey, I'll remind him how strong our kind truly is."
Flower petals lifted and danced around his feet as Jace dodged another attack. Cole swung again, but the recent fall out of one of the castle's windows locked him into a sudden paralysis. His back froze in a terrible twinge, which offered Jace a perfect opening for a countering jab. The blow was hard and heavy, connecting with Cole's chin.
Cole was knocked backward and crumpled onto a bed of soft fluorescence; his sight blurring into a fuzzy picture of fascia, cerulean, and shadow.
"If you can't beat me, how are you supposed to protect Avelen, or the fey, or your friends?" Jace spat to the side then wiped the back of a hand across his lips. "Some king you are."
"That's enough, Jace." Penelope had been petrified by absolute ambivalence when witnessing her brother and Cole trading blows, but instantly she rushed over and placed herself between the two, her arms extended outward. "He's already injured. He plunged out of a window trying to follow the two of you."
"That's his own fault. Besides, I was merely defending myself." Jace's eyes narrowed into suspicion the moment he realized his sister was protecting Cole.
It's true that the pair had been neigh inseparable in the last month due to Ruby's absence, and that Cole was responsible for rescuing Pen during the initial dragon attack on the kingdom, but still...he was her brother. Why had she done that? In fact, why had she brought him here to the secret meadow in the first place, borne upon her wings no less? A gradual elucidation bent his expression. Frustration melded with disapproval.
"Not him, Pen," Jace muttered. He shook his head, eyes averted and downcast looking at the flowers of the meadow. "How could you fall that one? He's a human, not to mention a stranger to our world. Observe how weak he is. If I were one of the dragons, he'd be an easy snack."
Pen's brow furrowed as she felt an instinctual fury rise within her, unintentionally confirming Jace's accusation as she said: "And who are you to judge, my brother? I've seen the way you gaze at his friend. The kiss you and Ruby shared has left its mark on you, hasn't it?"
"You know not of what you speak-"
"I know more than you. You say Cole is weak, but every trial he is put through he has accomplished. Every day he is summoned to arduous training and beckoned to prolonged meetings, answering each call without protest. We all know his feelings toward the princess, and yet he was willing to marry her for the sake of Avelen and its people. He may not be a fey, but his might is strong and his heart is fierce. He may not possess the might of the fey, but he has a source of strength all his own; that's why he is the star-born king."
Cole was still gathering most of his senses at this point, and could only hear muffled voices through ringing ears. All that he could muster was an, "Ugh," as he struggled to roll over.
"I am not our father," Jace said, "and therefore cannot forbid these emotions you feel toward him. But know that I will never condone them, either." His words were firm and stiff.
"I don't need your permission, Jace. I just need your love as my brother."
Presently a long pause followed. A gentle breeze wafted the fragrance of flowers through the wind. Finally he replied, "That you will always have." His wings flexed and spread wide as he added, "Ruby gave me instructions before returning back to the dragons. I'll be at the castle whenever you manage to scrape him up off the ground." Jace bounded three paces and caught the wind as he soared high past the trees, slowly fading from view.
Cole let out another groan, alerting Penelope's attention to him again. "Are you all right?" She asked with concern, though she couldn't hold back a grin and giggle. Cole was coming around, but a great number of flower petals stuck to his hair and clung to his clothing as he slowly sat upright. The young fey girl spent a moment to lightly brush off some of the petals for him.
"I think...I'm okay. My back is still tender, though."
"Don't worry," Penelope said, "I'll fly us back to the castle very, very slowly - for your sake as well as mine."
It had been a tiring effort to reach the secret meadow on her part, landing there for what had only been a small measure of time, but Penelope dutifully ascended into the sky with Cole in her arms again, flying toward Avelen's direction once more.
She remained reticent during the return journey, but reflecting on the words she had said early, this time Penelope embraced Cole a little tighter.