This is not the plain where I'd died.
I am not surrounded by bloodstained weapons and nameless bodies.
Nor even anxious loved ones, eagerly awaiting my recovery from a spell.
I am alone.
And this is my old bedroom in Granny's home, the one that Daphne had always said looked like a dollhouse.
I am on a bed. Next to me is a small nightstand, with a get-well-soon bouquet of flowers, slightly wilted - as if they have been sitting there a while. Somewhere, I hear a clock ticking.
I can tell by the fading, melancholic light coming in through the window that it is evening.
It is the same window that Tobias had once boarded up to stop Puck's pixies from coming in to hurt us.
The same window out through which I'd snuck countless times on shenanigans with Daphne and Puck, to save our grandmother, my parents, the world.
The same window where, after being away for a year and a half, Puck had hovered that fall evening, throwing acorns to say Did You Miss Me, while I'd pulled him in and kissed him to answer Yes, Fool, I Did.
I lie for a while, trying to collect myself. Then I slowly sit up, letting my head spin from the effort. For a moment I worry that I am still sick, that the magic still owns me, but I realize I feel the same as I had on that seashore - lighter, clearer, every thought truly mine.
The spinning stops - it was really just the result of having lain for a while.
Or from dying; it's hard to tell.
I stand and head out of the room. I hear sounds coming from the kitchen below, and I walk down the stairs. I see them before they notice me - Mom, Dad, Daphne, Red and Puck, whose hair has grown back almost to what it used to be. I am struck by this odd picture of my family: reformed child psychopath, immortal King of Faerie, and the three humans who'd inherited them from Granny Relda, all sitting together under the same roof.
I watch them for a moment: was it really the Grimms that had taken them in, or was it they who'd invited us into their world? It seemed as if we were standing forever on the brink of each other's realities before my grandmother had held out her hands and helped us cross over.
They are having dinner, although nobody seems to really be eating much. I suddenly have a strong desire to play a prank on them, so I sneak down as quietly as I can, avoiding the last step which still creaks after all these years. I duck behind the doorway to the kitchen, force the grin off my face, take a deep breath, and step into the room.
"So you guys started without me? I hope you saved me something, because I'm famished."
Five faces turn to stare at me. It takes all my self control not to explode with laughter. I lower myself into the empty seat between Daphne and Puck and pull a napkin onto my lap.
"What?" I say, acting nonchalant. "I feel like I haven't eaten in weeks."
Puck springs to his feet, his chair falling over in his haste, his eyes wide.
"You're alive," he says at last.
"Yeah, so? Being dead was getting kinda old, so I thought I'd . . ."
He shoves me, furious. My own chair skids backward.
"You stole my pipes!" He seethes, jaw clenched. "You turned my minions against me!"
I hadn't expected that, honestly.
Even if I'd probably deserved it.
"And you made me watch!"
"Yeah, well, you'd have . . ." I begin, but strong arms are suddenly around me as I'm yanked out of my chair and crushed in a hug. I breathe in the smell of Puck - a little stronger than usual; he probably hadn't had a bath in all the time I'd been dead - he is so familiar, so safe, so real. The stubble on his jaw scratches my cheek as he buries his face in my hair, trembling and breathing against my ear in choking gasps.
Then we are jostled as Daphne joins the huddle. And then Mom, who puts her arms around all of us, muttering quietly, "Oh, thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank God. Thank God."
From among the tangle of arms, I peek out at Red, sitting quietly, her lips curving in the smallest grin.
Next to her, Dad has his face in his hands, his shoulders heaving as he exhales again and again. Finally, he lifts his eyes to meet mine. I smile at him, but I have begun to cry, as has he, and neither of us moves a hand to stop the tears.
Puck and I are alone in my old bedroom. After we'd abandoned whatever was left of dinner and adjourned to the living room, I'd told them about Granny and Grandpa. We'd called Uncle Jake and I'd snuck away to give him Briar's message in private. He'd listened without a word, and sighed.
"By the way, sorry for not being there when you woke up. It wasn't like it was your funeral, you know. I was just waiting to get The Call - the one to say you were undead."
"Or you were busy with Seraphina."
"Puck told you?"
"Actually, it was your twitter feed."
"Dangit." There is silence on the line, then, "Are you okay, 'Brina?"
"Er, I'm not dead anymore, so I guess. . . yeah."
He'd laughed, then asked in all seriousness, "No, I meant - are you okay? Do you know what you want now . . . who . . .?"
I love how Uncle Jake always just got it, got me.
The events of the past weeks had returned to me then, crystal clear, pure, the bad mixed in with the good. Eating pastries. Bloodied swords. Hotel rooms and car rides. Dragon fire and megalomaniacs. Conversations on the roof. Cradling a dead fairy in my arms. Coffee and caramel. Hand-holding and shoulder-shoving and flying in the moonlight. Vows and breathless kisses. The sound of Puck's scream in my ears as I'd left him for the last time. And how, even then, I'd wanted to remember what he'd looked like, forever, in case I never came back.
I'd told Uncle Jake yes.
Then I'd returned to the family. Puck had crowed when he heard what Granny had to say about his restaurants.
"Rave reviews all the way from paradise! Ladies and gentlemen, we have arrrrrrriiiiiived!"
Everyone had questions, and they'd let fly, one after another, as if they'd been afraid that if I'd stopped talking, I'd vanish like a mirage.
From Red, however, there'd been only one.
"What's it like - heaven?" She'd asked quietly, when at last there'd been a lull in the exchange.
I hadn't known how to answer. Not because I'd felt that I should keep it a secret from anyone who hadn't been granted a sneak preview as I had, but because I didn't know. I hadn't an impression of the place itself. It was only of the people I'd met, and the ones I hadn't, but whose presence I'd sensed in their messages and their love for me and others they'd left behind.
And I'd returned with the feeling that, rather than having had closure after a life well lived, they'd seemed to be filled with the vigor and newness of a life just beginning.
I'd tried to describe this in words to Red, fully aware that she'd been thinking of lost opportunities and regrets and unspoken goodbyes. She'd nodded, and said no more.
I hadn't mentioned Oriel- my Oriel; I'd wanted to save that for just Puck.
And now, after the rest of the family had gone to bed in various degrees of euphoria and exhaustion, I take his hand and sit beside him on my old bed. We are quiet for a while. I can see out of the corner of my eye that he is looking at me, hasn't turned his gaze away for a single moment. But when I turn to look right at him, he breaks the contact.
"Hey," I begin.
He stares at his feet, grimly determined not to look up.
"I'm sorry I stole your pipes."
"I didn't . . . I couldn't save you." He mumbles it so quietly to the floor that I almost miss it.
"That was never part of the plan."
"Yeah, but . . . " He hesitates, and then the words come gushing out of him in a torrent. "I kept thinking about that time when you fell off the water tower and I couldn't save you then, either. But you had that tail, and you were okay, and that was when I knew that if anything happened to you, I'd . . . I couldn't . . ."
He scrubs at his eyes.
"Puck . . ."
He turns those eyes on me now, red-rimmed and furious. "Don't ever do that again."
He nods, composed once more. Then, "I kissed you. Every day."
"While you were dead. I kissed you, to try to wake you up. You know, like when I ate that stupid poisoned apple and you woke me up with a kiss. I knew this was different but I had to try . . . just in case it worked."
He looks so vulnerable sitting there, swallowing and chewing on his lower lip, that my heart explodes.
I nudge his shoulder. "I think it worked."
He glances at me sideways, his eyes still haunted, but a smile is beginning.
More silence. So much still left to say.
"So . . . what happened after I um . . . crash landed?"
"Crash landed. . .!" He mutters under his breath, ending with a particularly rude word. "Everyone stopped fighting to watch. Gurdach landed first. And then you. You . . ." His throat bobs. "It was hard to look. But there was all this black stuff coming out of you - your nose, your eyes, everywhere. It just sank into the ground, like filthy water, and disappeared. And then the army - Gurdach's army, I mean - all dropped their weapons, and looked as if they were waking up from a long sleep, they were so confused. Gurdach had had them completely brainwashed.
"Anyway, just like that, the war was over. And Rhogin - Gurdach had him under his control, too, in those last minutes, you know; he couldn't move a muscle - he recovered, too, and whipped out his elixir, which he'd been carrying with him the whole time, and gave it to you."
"Nothing happened. He took the stopper off, and nothing came out. He just held it under your nose like smelling salts, and you lay there, dead as a doornail, covered in bits of that black gunk. I was about to rip him apart with my hands right there, but he said to wait, that sometimes it took a while."
I inhale sharply. My meeting with Granny and Grandpa had felt like an hour, at the most.
"Anyway, we got you home to Faerie, and Gossamer said it didn't look good - I mean, I think you broke every bone in your body; how was the elixir going to fix that? But then, after three, four days, and you didn't even start to smell or anything, we wondered if maybe you weren't, you know, completely dead. Or maybe something crazy was happening inside your body. Gossamer said to take you back to Ferryport Landing - maybe Bunny could help somehow, seeing as it was her mirror that did this to you. So here we are. We've been just sitting around since, waiting."
"Mustardseed. . . is he . . .?"
Puck smile widens at last, and my heart soars with wild hope.
"He's okay. He was in a lot worse shape than me when the jabberwocky took my wings off, but we got him back home in time. Gossamer put him in a cocoon. He should be out any day now."
I grin suddenly as a pure, untampered memory jumps into focus.
"Who did he spray?"
Puck shudders dramatically.
He smirks. "And Marshmallow."
"Cocoons can spray two people?"
"Apparently, my insufferable control-freak of a brother found a way to. I got the brunt of it, but I'm pretty sure Marshmallow got more than a few drops herself. He must not trust me enough, that ingrate - that's why he got himself a backup."
"So . . . Daphne?"
We stare at each other with wicked delight and are, for a moment gleefully silent, enjoying the implication of the Fae Prince's choice.
"What happened to Rhogin?" I eventually continue my questions. "Is he back home?"
"Yeah. He's King now, of course. Oh, by the way, he sent you the flowers in your room. Says he's sorry he couldn't stop by for a visit, but that he would, once he's got some kind of new laws in place and cleaned up the mess Gurdach left behind."
Such an old-fashioned gesture, and so typical of Rhogin. I'll have to write him an old-fashioned thank-you card back, with a royal seal and everything. I feel my heart warm to him, and not just because his human alter-ego is so unfairly swoonworthy. For all the alpha-male nonsense that he and Puck have between them, there's actually a lot of real good in him. Besides, if I'm being honest, I feel a little guilty that I'd let my prejudices color my trust in him. And I'm also deeply sympathetic - he has a long road ahead of him to rebuilding his realm, not to mention overcoming the generational curse - if Gurdach's twisted psyche offered any hint - that he's inherited along with his dysfunctional kingdom.
Yes - in spite of having his future handed to him on an earthen platter, the new King of Goblins, too, is standing alone at his own crossroads, on the edge of a brink he must choose to cross over to avoid the mistakes of his father before him. It occurs to me that Rhogin, for all his untouchable otherwordliness, might actually need a friend. Someday, when our kingdoms are quiet and peaceful again, we'll have to get together and catch up.
If nothing else, I owe him big time for my life.
"What?" Puck asks, glaring suspiciously at my smiling face.
I continue grinning, tempted for a moment to tease him, before I remember that he'd just been through hell and back for me. So instead, I link my arm in his and lay my head on his shoulder.
"Just thinking about the huuuuuge thank-you card I should probably send to Rhogin."
Puck rubs his cheek against my hair.
"Yeah. I bet he'll be glad for any mail that isn't demanding something or other. Apparently, his people have taken to sending him letters urging him to start a new royal family since, you know, he's the only one left now that his parents and siblings and half-siblings are all dead. He's been texting me some of the funnier ones: find a wife (or ten), spawn a hundred baby goblins, hold a bride selection contest. Some of the more lovestruck females have even offered themselves as concubines."
"Ah, matchmaking, goblin-style. Poor Rhogin. He must've thought you'd be sympathetic, having been forced along that same route once upon a time."
"Actually, I think the texts were to pay me back for rubbing our marriage in his face when we were in London. He knew, by the way."
My face must give away my surprise, because he elaborates. "That we were married. I mean, come on! An Everafter king getting hitched? And to a Grimm, no less? Even without the internet, everyone in the realm knew! And yes, we'd invited his family, but they'd turned us down, and not even politely. You'd think that even though Gurdach hated us, he'd at least have let someone come as an act of goodwill. But he was a nutcase - what can I say?"
"What - so in London, Rhogin was just playing along? And making me out to be the fool?"
"No. It wasn't like that. He also knew - everyone did - about our falling out; you know - that the Queen had left Faerie and was estranged from the King and all that. So when he saw us together, he assumed, as I'd hoped he would, that we had either just made up or were trying to. Which, if you know Rhogin, translated to a fun challenge to get his fingers into and see if he could lure you over. What he didn't know was that you were also dying from the magic inside you, and a few screws shy of totally mental."
"So that's why he said, at the end of it, that you'd won that round."
"Oh, he did, did he? Excellent." Puck rubs his hands together in glee. "Take that, scumbag!"
"Still, I think he can't be enjoying all the social engineering by his court."
"He should be glad! I always knew the poor bugger couldn't get himself a date without his entire kingdom organizing it for him."
"Unlike us, who had to live in the same house every day to figure out we weren't enemies."
"Hey! I was clearly a good catch; you were the one too stupid to see."
I laugh. "Well, when the next generation of fairy and goblin offspring gets together for playdates, we are gonna have to set some strict rules. Really strict rules."
"Ha! Totally. Like 'No kidnapping each other's countrymen and turning them into walking zombies.' "
"I was thinking more along the lines of of 'No killing off your parents.'"
"Or 'No plotting mass invasion on each other's kingdoms.' "
"Nah, he already promised me that."
Puck pulls away and eyes me unhappily.
"Promised you? When did he . . . why . . . what's going on between you two?"
"Chill, Puckster. In London, when he told me about the elixir, I'd said I wasn't thrilled that he had a weapon of potential mass destruction at his disposal. And he swore not to ever invade us."
"Hm." Puck frowns, not entirely convinced.
"Puck." I cup his cheek. "I am, and have only ever been, in love with one Everafter king, and he's right here in this room."
I feel, rather than see him relax, as he says, "Okay."
Seconds pass, during which we stare at our intertwined fingers.
"So," I break the silence. "It appears that I've saved the world again. And admit it: it was much, much better than a meteor speeding to earth, and resulted in far, far smaller collateral damage."
Puck glares and pokes me in the shoulder.
"Just so you know, I haven't forgiven you for making me watch you die. Just because you've returned from the afterlife all chipper doesn't mean I'm not harboring bitterness and resentment about the actual dying part."
"You're going to harbor bitterness and resentment for the rest of your life?"
"Also," he ignores my question, "after watching you drop like a rock, I'm revising my preferences for Best Ways To Die."
"I've decided that dramatic is way overrated. I'm rooting for going peacefully in my sleep. With you. Together. Simultaneously."
"Ah, yes, far less bitterness and resentment that way."
"And since we both arrive at the pearly gates at the same time," I postulate, "we get to continue bickering right where we left off the night before."
"Assuming they let me in."
I chuckle, imagining Puck standing before the gatekeepers of heaven, defending the long list of tricks he'd played at the expense of the universe. But I also remember that Granny had talked about how some of her fellow denizens of the afterlife were not at all whom she'd expected.
"I think you'd be surprised." I smile.
He huffs cynically, as if conceding the mercy of paradise somehow diminishes the potency of his pranks.
Another rest between words; comfortable.
It is time to tell him.
"It . . . it's a boy." I stumble for a moment over whether to use the present or past tense.
I see from the way his face changes that he gets it right away.
"You met him."
I shake my head. "Granny said I couldn't . . . or that I only could meet . . . everyone . . . when I'd be staying. They've been calling him 'liebling' because he hadn't a name yet. So I told her to name him Oriel because . . . you know. She said he looks just like you."
Puck swallows. I wait for the cocky, arrogant remark about perfect genes but it doesn't come. In fact, he seems to have lost his desire to speak at all, so after a moment, I continue.
"Anyway, they somehow knew I wasn't there to stay . . . yet. Apparently, the elixir must have had something to do with it - tied me to the living so I couldn't quite cross over."
"Why not? Too many sins that they had to kick you out?" I am relieved to hear the teasing tone return to his voice.
"Nah. You can choose whether to cut that tie and stay, or come back. I don't think Bunny knew that, or Rhogin. Maybe that was why some of their experiments lived and some didn't. If Rhogin had used the elixir on the dead captain after all, and the captain hadn't wanted to continue living again, it'd have been a waste of the last dose. And since it's all gone now, we'll never really know."
Puck contemplates this, staring at me. "So you chose to come back, huh?"
"But you had to leave the Old Lady, and your grandfather. And you didn't get to see . . . our son."
I shrug. "I didn't see a Starbucks along that beach, either. And since I knew one fairy who made pretty darned good coffee back here, I thought. . . well . . ."
I sneak a glance at him, and catch him still watching me.
"Besides, I thought that maybe you might miss me if I stayed. I mean, I was already missing you, and I was in paradise. So I chose to come back. I chose you."
He keeps staring, and then a slow smile spreads across his face and he squeezes my hand. I stare back, taking in everything - the unshaven jaw and shaggy ingrowing hair, the bloodshot eyes, the slightly rank odor about him.
I love him.
I love every single bit of every single flaw of this beautiful boy.
I tear my eyes away from him, just to prove to myself that I can, and stretch, looking around me, at my old room immortalized in memories. It looks so . . . normal.
"So . . . this is happily ever after, huh?" I muse.
"Looks like it. Why? Were you expecting to be swept off your feet by some prince to become queen of some faraway land?"
Oh, the irony.
I laugh. "Pretty sure I've been there and done that."
"Hard act to follow." He agrees.
"No, this is good. I'm good."
Then he grows serious. "Are you really okay? Do you remember . . . everything?"
"I still don't have my memories back. I thought maybe they'd return after the evil magic thing died, but no. I think they're really just lost forever. Red says it's the same with her - not that she died, I mean. Maybe when you lose your mind for a time, it's a black hole even after, and sometimes other things fall into it. What a mess, huh? But you know what? I decided it didn't matter. You'll just have to help me figure out what happened in those years and make more new memories. And I want you in every single one of them."
" 'Kay," he promises.
"That said, I'm still bummed that I can't even remember us ever being married. Although, from the sound of it, it might have been more "for worse" than "for better." "
"Oh, I don't know about that," Puck says, his grin turning mischievous. "I definitely remember there being a lot of For Betters."
I shake my head. "What - more pranks?"
"I wouldn't call it that exactly," he says wickedly. "We used to make out all day. And forget meals."
I laugh. "Nice try, buster. Not even realistic."
He smirks in reckless defiance, his voice lowering to a whisper. "And we'd often start like this." He slides his hand behind my neck and draws my face to his.
"Happy happily ever after," he murmurs into the space between our lips.
Suddenly, realistic seems overrated.
I sigh against his mouth and pull him closer, marveling at us: the girl who chose earth over heaven, flesh over phantoms, present over past, and the boy who made it all worth it - the one I'd continue to choose, crossing every brink, every day for as long as I live; finally together, hearts racing at the future, at the possibilities.
I step over and meet him.