I stepped close and slipped my arms around his waist, hearing his quiet intake of breath as I pulled him against me. “That was a long time ago,” I murmured, pressing my cheek to his back, listening to his thudding heart. “You’ve changed since then. That Ash wouldn’t protect a silly human girl with his life, or become her knight, or walk into exile with her. Every step of the way, you’ve always been there, right beside me. I’m not letting you go now.”
“I’m a coward.” Ash’s voice was subdued. “If I cared for you as much as I should, I would end my life and the curse along with it. My existence puts you in danger. If I were no longer here—”
“Don’t you dare, Ashallyn’darkmyr Tallyn.” I held him tighter, even as he flinched at the sound of his True Name. “Don’t you dare throw your life away for an unknown superstition. If you die—” My voice broke, and I swallowed thickly. “I love you,” I whispered, fisting my hands against his stomach. “You can’t leave. You swore you wouldn’t.”
Ash’s hands came to rest over mine, twining our fingers together. “Even if the world stands against you,” he murmured, bowing his head. “I promise.”
For awhile, we just stood like that, content not to move, as the wind howled around us and tugged at our hair and clothes. Ash, true to form, was perfectly still. I closed my eyes and lost myself in his quiet breathing, in the rise and fall of his chest, in the beat of his heart. It was hard to believe, sometimes, that this—this beautiful, solemn, immortal prince in my arms—was mine.
His voice rumbled in my ear, low and hesitant. “Yes?” I whispered, and he shifted around to face me, taking my hands in his. For a few moments, he gazed at our interlocked fingers, running his thumb gently over my skin, as if gathering his thoughts.
“Be patient with me,” he said at last, furrowing his brow. His gaze finally shifted up to mine, bright and soulful. “It’s…difficult sometimes, to watch you fight, to see you throw yourself into danger again and again.” One hand came up, long fingers gently touching my cheek. “I can’t bear the thought of anything happening to you,” he murmured. “I wish I could protect you from everything.”
“I know,” I said, smiling up at him. “But, it’s my turn now. You’ve done so much already, Ash; now it’s my turn to protect you. You and Puck and the Nevernever, and…and everyone.” I sighed and looked past him, at the clouds sweeping over the iron realm. “If I could just figure out a way to do that.”
“I’m sure you’ll think of something.” Ash’s voice was resigned, and he drew me closer, wrapping his arms around my waist. Sighing, he lowered his head, soft strands of his hair brushing my forehead. “Just…try not to give me a heart attack when you do.”
“I can’t promise anything,” I whispered back. “But, I’ll try.”
His expression twitched in a faint smile, and he gave a tiny shake of his head. “I suppose that’s all I can ask for—” But before he could finish, I slipped my arms around his neck, leaned up, and took his lips with mine.
He made a faint noise of surprise, before his eyes fluttered shut and he leaned into me, pulling us closer. I savored the feel of his lips against mine, breathing in his scent, that sharp mix of frost and peppermint. He breathed my name, just one simple word, and it turned my stomach inside out and set my whole body on fire. It made me desperate to get closer, made me bolder then I’d ever been. I pressed forward, pushing him against the railing, standing on tiptoe to trail kisses down his neck. He groaned, tilting his head back, hands sliding up to tangle in my hair. I couldn’t get close enough, it seemed. Never close enough.
Ash ducked his head, meeting my lips again, his kisses suddenly crushing, devouring. One arm snaked around my waist, the other cupped the back of my head, pressing us together, like two puzzle pieces that finally clicked. I held him as tightly as I could, feeling the hard, lithe muscles of his back, shifting through his armor. Wishing it was suddenly gone, that I could feel his cool skin under my fingers. His cloak fluttered around us, like the edges of tattered wings, cocooning us both, and I didn’t want to be anywhere else in the world.
Ash drew back suddenly, breathing deep, trying to control himself. I felt his heart beneath his armor, hammering in his chest. He dropped his gaze, shoulders heaving, though his arms didn’t loosen their grip, and resisted my attempt to pull back.
The look he gave me was almost frightening in its intensity. “Command me,” he whispered, bringing his face close to mine. His eyes seared into me, challenging and pleading all at once. “Tell me to stop, and I will.”
I gazed at him, well aware that my own heart was doing its best to crash through my ribs. Ash watched me, silver eyes blazing with desire, and love. I reached up and touched his face, and he closed his eyes, putting his hand over mine, pressing it to his cheek, before his gaze flickered to me again.
Waiting. He wouldn’t go any further unless I told him to. He was letting me decide, like he’d promised. I could walk away from him now, and he wouldn’t follow. Or I could tell him to go, and he would. We could stop this, right now, if I wasn’t completely ready.
I swallowed hard, pulled his lips down to mine, and whispered: