Ash stepped back. Without a word, he turned and walked toward the archway, shoulders back and head high. At the edge of the trod, he hesitated, and I saw a shadow of fear cross his face. But then his expression hardened, and he swept through the door without looking back.
Darting around Oberon, I rushed for the trod. Faeries hissed and snarled, and Puck yelled for me to stop, but I ignored them all. As I approached Mab, her lips curled in a cruel smile and she stepped back, giving me a clear shot at the open trod.
Oberon’s voice cracked like a whip, and a roar of thunder shook the ground. I stumbled to a halt a few feet from the doorway, so close that I could see the road and darkened street, the blurry outline of houses through the rain.
The Erlking’s voice was ominously quiet, and his eyes glowed amber through the gently falling snow. “The laws of our people are absolute,” Oberon warned. “Summer and Winter share many things, but love is not one of them. If you make this choice, daughter, the trods will never open for you again.”
My stomach dropped. There it was. Oberon would banish me from the Nevernever, as well. For a split second, I almost laughed in his face. This wasn’t my home. I hadn’t asked to be half-fey. I’d never wanted to be caught up in their problems, or their world. Let him exile me; what did I care?
Don’t kid yourself, I thought with a sudden sick feeling in my gut. You love this world. You risked everything to save it. Are you really going to walk away and forget it ever existed?
“Meghan.” Puck stepped forward, pleading. “Don’t do this. I can’t follow you this time. Stay here. With me.”
“I can’t,” I whispered. “I’m sorry, Puck. I do love you, but I have to do this.”
His face clouded with pain, and he turned away. Guilt stabbed at me, but in the end, the choice had always been clear.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered again to Puck, to Oberon, to everyone, and turned back to the doorway. I don’t belong here. Not really. Time to wake up and go home for real.
“Are you sure, Meghan Chase?” Oberon’s voce was cold, remorseless.
“Walk out of Faery with him now, and you’re never coming back.”
Somehow, the ultimatum made it that much easier.
“Then I’m never coming back,” I said softly, and went through the arch, leaving Faery behind me forever.
As I stumbled through the trod and onto the sidewalk, the rain hit me like a hammer, cold, wet and comfortingly unpleasant. Like normal rain. Lightning flickered overhead; regular, white lightning that didn’t respond to the whims of a faery king’s mood. My gown clung to my body; the drenching would be the finishing touch to ruining it completely, but I didn’t care. My time in Faery was over. No more faery glamour, faery food or faery tricks. I was done. With one exception, of course.
“Ash!” I called, squinting through the rain and darkness, through the glow of the streetlamps that made it impossible to see more than a few feet. “Ash, I’m here! Where are you?”
The empty road mocked me. Didn’t he think I’d come after him? Was he already gone, fading into the rain without a backward glance, believing himself alone in the world? Tears muffled my voice. “Ash!” I yelled, taking a few steps down the sidewalk. “Ash!”
“You’ll wake everyone up if you keep shouting like that.”
I whirled around. He stood where the portal had been, hands in his pockets, the rain drumming his shoulders and making his hair run into his eyes. Lamplight fell around him, shining off his slick coat, surrounding him with a faint nimbus of light. But to me, he’d never looked so real.
“You came after me,” he murmured, sounding awed, incredulous, and relieved at the same time. I walked up to him, smiling through my tears.
“You didn’t think I’d let you go off alone, did you?”
“I was hoping.” Ash stepped forward and hugged me, pulling me close with desperate relief. I slid my arms beneath his coat and held him tight, closing my eyes. The rain pounded us, and a lone car passed us on the road, spraying us with gutter water, but I felt no urge to move. As long as Ash held me, I could stay here forever. He finally pulled back but didn’t release me from the circle of his arms. “So,”
he murmured, his silver eyes boring into mine. “What do we do now?”
“I don’t know,” I said, shivering as he brushed a strand of wet hair from my cheek. “I think…I should go home soon. Mom and Luke are probably going nuts. What about you?”
He shrugged, a casual lift of one shoulder. “You tell me. When I left the Nevernever, I didn’t have any plans other than being with you. If you want me around, just say the word.”
My eyes watered. I thought of Rowan, of Ironhorse, and the armies of the false king, still on the move. I thought of Leanansidhe and Charles, trapped in the Between. I would have to get him out someday, and confront Leanansidhe about stealing my dad so long ago. But for now, the only thing I wanted was standing right here, looking at me with an expression so open and unguarded that I thought my heart would burst out of my chest. “Don’t leave,” I whispered, tightening my hold. “Never leave me again. Stay with me. Forever.”
The Winter prince smiled, a small, easy smile, and lowered his lips to mine. “I promise.”