Gently, I kissed Ethan’s forehead and eased him onto the couch without waking him, then stood to face Mom and Luke. “I have to go,” I said softly.

“They’re waiting for me.”

Mom hugged me again, and Luke enfolded us both in his thick arms. “Be sure to write,” Mom sniffed, as if I was going on a long trip, or away to college. Maybe it was easier for her to think that. “Call us if you have the chance, and try to come home for holidays.”

“I’ll try,” I murmured, stepping away. For a moment, I gazed around the farmhouse, reliving old memories, letting them warm me inside and out. No longer home, but it was a part of me that would always be there, a place that would never fade away. I turned to Mom and Luke and smiled through the tears I hadn’t realized were falling until now.

“Meghan.” Mom stepped forward, pleading. “Are you sure you have to do this? Can’t you stay, just a few days?”

I shook my head. “I love you, Mom.” Drawing on my glamour, I swirled it around me like a cloak. “Tell Ethan I won’t forget.”

“Meghan!”

“Goodbye,” I whispered, and faded from sight. Both Mom and Luke jumped, looking around frantically, then Mom buried her face in Luke’s shoulder and sobbed.

Ethan woke up, blinked at his parents, then looked right at me, still invisible by the front door. His eyebrows rose, and I put my finger to my lips, praying he wouldn’t cause a fuss.

Ethan smiled. One small hand rose in a brief wave, then he hopped off the couch and padded up to Mom, still being consoled by Luke. I watched my family, felt their love and grief and support, and smiled proudly. You’ll be fine, I told them, swallowing the lump in my throat. You’ll be fine without me.

Blinking back tears, I gave my family one last look and swept through the front door into the waiting dawn.

I WAS HALFWAY ACROSS the front lawn, forcing myself to put one foot in front of the other and not turn back, when a bark caught my attention, and I looked up.

Something was bounding toward me over the grass, a shadow in the predawn light. Something large and furry and vaguely familiar. A wolf? No, a dog! A big, shaggy…no, that couldn’t be right…

“Beau?” I gasped, as the huge German shepherd slammed into me with the force of a freight train, nearly knocking me down. It was Beau. I laughed as his big paws muddied my shirt and his enormous tongue slapped the side of my face.

“What are you doing here?” I asked, rubbing his neck as he panted and wagged his whole body in joy. I hadn’t seen our old farm dog since the day Luke had unjustly taken him to the pound, thinking he’d bitten Ethan. “Did Mom decide to bring you home? How—”

I stopped, my fingers brushing something thin and metallic looped around his neck, under his shaggy fur. Wondering if it was a collar with tags, I calmed Beau long enough to pull it free, drawing it over his ears and holding it up for a closer look.

It was a familiar silver chain, on which hung the remains of a shattered amulet, glinting in the predawn light.

My heart skipped a beat. With Beau still dancing at my feet, I looked around, scanning the front yard and the edge of the trees. He couldn’t be here. I’d sent him away, released him from his vows. He should hate me. And yet…here it was.

For a few heart-pounding moments, I waited. Waited for his dark form to slip out of the shadows, for those bright silver eyes to find me. I thought I could feel him nearby, watching. I could almost imagine I sensed his heartbeat, felt his emotions—or maybe that was my own longing. My own sense of loss and grief and regret, and the love I knew could never be.

A weight pressed against my chest, and I smiled sadly. Deep down, I knew he wasn’t coming. We were from different worlds, now. Ash couldn’t survive in the Iron Realm, and I could not—would not—abandon it. I had responsibilities, to the Iron Realm, to my subjects, to myself. Ash couldn’t be a part of that. Better a clean break than to drag it out, wishing for the impossible. He knew that. This was just his final gift; his last farewell.

Still, I hesitated, my stomach in knots, hoping against hope that he would find me, change his mind, and come back. But several silent minutes passed, and Ash did not appear. Finally, as the last of the stars faded from the heavens, I put the chain in my pocket and knelt to scratch Beau behind the ears.

“He’s something, isn’t he?” I asked the dog, who blinked and thumped his tail solemnly. “I don’t know where he found you, or how he brought you here, but I’m glad he did. I wish I could see him one more time…” A lump rose to my throat, and I swallowed it down. “You’ll like it in your new home, boy,” I went on, trying to be cheerful. “Plenty of room, lots of gremlins to chase, and I think you’ll really like Paul.” The dog whined, cocking his head. I kissed his long muzzle and stood. “Come on,” I said, wiping my eyes, “I’ll introduce you.”

The sky was now a soft pink. Birds twittered in the branches around me, and a faint wind rustled the leaves. Everywhere, life was stirring, moving on. I took a deep breath and looked to the sky, letting the breeze dry my tears. Ash was gone, but I still had people who needed me, who were waiting for me. I could wallow in my loss, or I could trust my knight and move on. I could wait. Time was on my side, after all. In the meantime, I had a kingdom to run.

“Majesty!”

Glitch’s voice shattered the calm of the morning, and my first lieutenant came striding through the trees. Beau growled, flattening his ears, until I touched his neck and he calmed down.

“All you all right?” Glitch asked anxiously, violet eyes wide as he stared at Beau. “What is that…thing? It looks dangerous. Did it hurt you?”

“Beau, this is Glitch,” I introduced, and the dog gave a tentative tail wag.

“Glitch, this is Beau. Be nice, the both of you. You’ll be seeing a lot of each other, I expect.”

“Wait. It’s coming with us?”

I laughed at his horrified expression. Beau barked happily and wagged his tail, leaning close. I slipped my arm through Glitch’s and smiled at the dog pressed against my leg. Life wasn’t perfect, but it was as perfect as it could be at the moment. I had a place in the world. I wasn’t alone.

“Come on,” I told them. “They’ll be waiting for us, back at the city. Let’s go home.”

Ash

He watched her from the fading dark, unseen and invisible, just another shadow in the trees. He wondered if he had been right to come here, to see her one last time, though he knew resisting her was futile. He couldn’t leave without seeing her again, hearing her voice and seeing her smile, even though it wasn’t for him. He had no illusions about his addiction to her. She had her fingers sunk firmly into his heart, and could do with it what she wished. He watched her walk away with the Iron faery and the dog, watched them leave to return to her own realm, back to a place he couldn’t follow. For now.

“So.” Robin Goodfellow appeared beside him, arms crossed over his chest, also watching the girl and her companions depart. “She’s gone.”

“Yes.”

Goodfellow shot him a sideways glance, wary and expectant. “What now?”

He sighed, raked a hand through his hair. “I have something to do,” he murmured. “A promise to keep. I might not be back for a long time.”

“Huh.” Goodfellow scratched his head, and grinned. “Sounds like fun. Where are we going?”

Now it was his turn to eye the other fey. “I don’t recall inviting you.”

“Too bad, ice-boy.” Infuriating as always, Goodfellow leaned back and smirked at him. “I’ve had enough of war and killing for a while. Tormenting you is so much more fun. Besides…” Goodfellow sighed and looked back to the nowempty steps. “I want her to be happy, and she’s most happy with you. Maybe this will make up for…past mistakes.” He shook his head and returned to his normal idiocy. “So, either you say, ‘sure, I’d love to have you along,’ or you have a big bird dropping things on your head the whole trip.”

He sighed, defeated. Perhaps it was best for Goodfellow to trail along. He was a competent fighter after all. And they had been…friends…once. Though this journey would change nothing. “Fine,” he muttered. “Just stay out of my way.”

The Summer faery grinned, rubbing his hands together, looking gleeful. He felt a brief moment of trepidation, inviting Puck along. Most likely, they would try to kill each other before the trip was through. “So, where are we going?”

Goodfellow asked. “I assume you have some sort of plan for this adventure.”

An adventure. He didn’t think of it that way, but it didn’t matter. I don’t care what it’s called. I just want to be with her at the end. I’m not giving up. Meghan, I’ll be with you soon. Please, wait for me.

“Hey, ice-boy. Did you hear me? Where are we going? What are we doing?”

“I heard you,” he murmured, and turned away, beginning to walk into the trees. “And yes, I have a plan.”

“Really. Do enlighten me.”

“First, we’re going to find a certain cat.”


Tags: Julie Kagawa The Iron Fey Book Series
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