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duskandstarlight · 6 days ago
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Embers & Light (Chapter 39, NSFW Nessian)
Notes: Well, over a year you've had to wait for these two to seal the deal... BUT NO LONGER. And because I'm thankful to you all for sticking with this story, I've granted you with over 16k of sinful naughtiness. I think it's safe to say this is NSFW but you guys have read my smut before, you know the drill.
Embers & Light has always very much been the alternative story to Habits, but I couldn’t help but write in some crossover moments here to highlight the differences in events--timeline is a fascinating thing! Lemme know if you spot the moments :)
Please let me know what you think :) Comment and kudos will make my day!
I won't be able to write much of August (wedding & mini-moon) but I'll be doing my best to get you guys something as soon as possible. Hopefully by the end of the month, anyways <3
Oh! And I got a bookstagram. Find me at bookships.and.fandoms (and bear with me, I cba to take pretty pics atm)
Chapter 39 Cassian POV
Cassian stared at the doorway and the staircase beyond it, his gaze fixed and unwavering. Nesta had slipped out of the living room to follow Feyre up the stairs over ten minutes ago and he was already consumed with the biting sort of worry that gnawed at your insides.
He wasn’t concerned about what Nesta might be discussing with Feyre—that was her business—but because he couldn’t help but fret when it came to Nesta’s wellbeing.
It was a myriad of concerns that trampled through his mind like a herd of cattle. Had she slept enough? Had she recovered from being caught in the crowds the day before? Was her conversation with Feyre going to have her take three steps back rather than one forward? Cassian had spied the book of fairytales she’d slipped into her bag. Had guessed what she’d intended to do with it.
And then there was the fact that Nesta had left the bed before he’d woken again. Cassian couldn’t help but feel disappointed that she’d not been there when he’d opened his eyes, especially after the night before.
But that was how it was with he and Nesta. When the sun dipped below the horizon, Cassian often felt as if they were on the right path; as if once the world shut its eyes, the pressure was off and their play could continue. But as soon as light bled back into the sky, things weren’t the same. They weren’t cold… but Cassian felt suspended in a limbo of flirtatious banter and respectful distance. Which was hard, when all Cassian wanted to do was be as close to her as possible: to hold her hand and wind a hand through her hair. To kiss her brow and mouth and sink his teeth into her neck—
Cassian’s jaw tightened. He wanted to do wicked things. He wanted to make her moan and shatter. Wanted to know how she felt wrapped around him. Wanted to see if she’d gasp awake as he pushed inside of her.
Their trip home was going to be a turning point. Or at the very least it would be a milestone—a hammered notch as they progressed towards something. Yet, Cassian wasn’t naive: he wasn’t expecting Nesta to fall into his arms and never leave. But he hoped that it might make Nesta see their connection—not the tie between them, but the chemistry that Cassian knew would forever exist even if the mating bond was severed.
From the very first moment his gaze had settled on the haughty, vicious sister Cassian had known. Had nearly been brought to his knees—the heart-stopping moment so powerful, it suspended time as he felt something turn inside of him, as if something that had lain dormant had finally snapped open an eye.
And because of that Cassian would willingly allow Nesta to forge the reigns when it came to whatever it was between them. He could go slow. He would take the chance that Nesta might grow to accept him, even as he was seized by the terror that she might grow bored and draw a line under things before he had the chance to prove that he was worthy.
Cassian took a deep, steadying breath that made his ribcage heave. Thought of the lullaby that sat in his room at the House. Used that to ground himself and banish the painful thoughts.
Nesta had cared enough to gift him a piece of his past that nobody else had ever gone to the effort to find for him. And that was… everything. It was everything to him.
“I can hear the worry grinding gears in your brain.”
Rhys was standing where Mor had been a few moments earlier, his hands tucked into the pockets of his trousers, his eyebrows raised. Cassian hadn’t noticed Mor slip away. Couldn’t even recall what she'd been saying to him. Had he ignored her? He didn’t know. Didn’t really care. They all knew he was head over heels when it came to Nesta anyway.
Cassian blinked. It took him a moment to process Rhys’s words, but his body finally caught up. An instinctive grin tugged at the corners of his mouth and he commanded his eyes to sparkle, even though it was all fake. “I was under the impression you didn’t think I had one.”
Rhys didn’t chuckle or retort with something dry. Sometimes his brother allowed him to indulge in his self-deprecating behaviour, but it didn’t seem like today was one of those days. Instead, he cut to the chase. “They’re fine.”
Cassian bristled. Didn’t bother to pretend his mind wasn't solely on what was happening upstairs. “Feyre’s speaking with you now?”
Nesta would hate that. Would know if her sister was communicating to her mate whilst they were talking.
His brother’s laugh was as smooth as velvet. “No, she locked me out. It’s a habit she’s started recently and it’s usually coupled with the mental finger.”
This time, Cassian’s smile was genuine, as was the chuckle that chased it. “Feisty.”
“You have no idea,” Rhys responded with a wink.
Mor, who had breezed back to Cassian’s side with a new cup of coffee, rolled her eyes. “We do actually, you two are like rabbits.”
“We’re mated,” Rhys replied with a wave of his hand. “It’s to be expected.”
Mor lifted her eyes to the ceiling. “Cauldron, I need to bed someone rather than hearing about my cousin’s exploits with my best friend.”
“Head to Rita’s and find yourself a pretty fae,” Cassian drawled, tugging Mor into a one armed hug.
“Mmm,” Mor hummed, but she chewed on her lip again. Glanced nervously at Azriel, who was in deep conversation with Elain. His shadows were tucked in neatly to his frame rather than trailing, ever-moving and loose around his body, but Cassian knew he could hear them.
Cassian dropped a friendly kiss to Mor’s head before he let her go. Tussled her hair, grinning mischievously when she squawked in disapproval.
As if sensing that his cousin wanted a change of subject, Rhys looked square at Cassian. “Azriel will come over later to update you on the latest movements.”
Cassian sobered as if someone had poured icy water down his back. “Not later,” Cassian corrected firmly.
Tomorrow. No the day after that. Cassian couldn’t guarantee that he’d be able to stop once he’d had his first proper taste of Nesta.
But of course they couldn’t do that—wouldn’t. The situation in Illyria was too dire for them to be so selfish as to lock themselves away for days.
It didn’t mean Cassian didn’t want to, though.
“You’ve got plans?” Rhys asked lightly and Mor froze.
You’ve got no idea, Cassian thought. But then realised his brother knew. Of course he did. Surely everyone in this room knew how desperate he was to get back to Illyria. To have Nesta in his bed again, writhing and moaning, their bodies slick with sweat as they moved in unison.
Clenching his jaw, Cassian grounded that desire between his teeth, until it was nothing but broken, delicious shards that scraped down his throat. His blood coiled. “Yes. Maybe.”
If she doesn’t change her mind.
“It has to be tomorrow, Cass.”
Biting back a sigh, Cassian nodded. “I know. Come at noon. I suppose I’ll be camped out in Illyria for the foreseeable future.” He cast a stern look at Mor. “Send me letters.”
“You have a housemate,” Rhys reminded him. “You’re not going to be entirely alone.”
Mor grinned slyly. “A very beautiful housemate.”
Cassian was more than aware of that.
He grunted and unable to stop himself, he voiced the fear that always niggled away at the back of his mind. “For now.”
But Rhys just loosed another manicured shrug, that was at odds with the ground-breaking revelation that followed it. “For a long while. Nesta has expressed her desire to remain in Illyria long-term despite the discontent. Assuming you don’t mind sharing your bungalow.”
It felt as if an iron band of hope was clamped around Cassian’s chest. He stared at his brother. Tried not to blink. Crossed his arms firmly over his chest, protecting his heart. “And you know this how?”
“Nesta spoke with me. We have arrived at a truce, of sorts.”
That must have been what they’d spoken about yesterday on the balcony. He wanted to know more—everything—but Cassian would not press Rhys. If Nesta wanted to tell him, she would. He had to respect that.
So, he bit back his curiosity and grumbled, “About time.”
Rhys clapped his hand on Cassian’s back, but there was something wary in his expression, as if there was something he wanted to say but wouldn’t. Finally, he said, “Patience is a virtue, brother.”
“I’m not the patient sort.”
“You are when it counts,” Rhys countered, and Cassian didn’t say anything because they both knew what he was referring to. Rhys had been the first to know. Had witnessed Cassian in a tangled web of despair and longing and unwanted visions. His brother had immediately put two and two together. Because he’d been there, too. Knew what it was to want someone you thought you couldn’t have. To hope that someone might finally grow to see you in colour rather than in black and white.
Cassian cast another look towards the empty doorway and the quiet hallway beyond it.
A shiver of anticipation ran through him. It was time for them to go home.
***
In the end, Cassian folded to his worry and had Elain fetch Nesta from upstairs. It was time to go, he’d insisted, even though there was no true reason as to why they needed to leave quite so quickly.
“No guesses required to identify why you want to head back to Illyria,” Mor muttered out the side of her mouth, as the creak of the stairs a few flights above heralded the sisters return. Cassian jabbed his elbow into his friend’s ribs and Mor yelped through her grin, even as she had to sidestep, the nudge throwing her off balance. “What? It’s all over your face. You think I can’t read you after five hundred years?”
“Don’t announce it to the room,” Cassian muttered darkly under his breath, “and you won’t find yourself torn to pieces.”
Mor briefly bumped against his arm, the jostle affectionate. Unfazed by his threat, she glanced sideways at him with rich chocolate eyes. “I won’t. We just want you to be happy, you know.”
Cassian’s mouth flattened into a thin line. “Now isn’t the time for a lecture about finding a more suitable mate.”
The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them. He hadn’t meant for it to happen, hadn’t meant to voice what he’d kept inside for so long.
Mor’s eyes widened, but she wound her arms around his waist. Cassian allowed her to tuck herself under his arm. His friend scented of citrus and cinnamon. When she craned her neck to look up at him, her expression was glowing with sincerity and Cassian realised that she hadn’t been insinuating that Nesta wasn’t right for him at all. “We’re all cheering you on from the sidelines, Cass, I promise.”
The muscle in Cassian’s jaw flexed. He looked away from her, towards the doorway again, unable to help himself. “Don’t say anything.”
She tightened her grip on his waist. “I won’t. I promise.”
“She doesn’t want it.”
Mor untangled herself from him. Shook her head in disagreement. “She does. She just isn’t ready to admit it yet.”
They both fell quiet as Nesta walked through the door with Elain and Feyre. The first thing Cassian noticed was that she scented of water and salt—tears.
Heart pattering with concern, Cassian quickly scanned Nesta’s expression and body language, searching for clues. But Nesta remained close to her sisters rather than apart, her fingers snagged in Feyre’s, her expression not in tatters but smooth and calm, like still waters.
“Ready to go?” Mor chirped from beside him. “I can winnow you back when Sala arrives.”
Nesta’s grey-blue eyes slid to Mor. “I called her on my way down.”
“Then you have time to see the snowdrops you gave me before you leave,” Elain responded eagerly, tugging at Nesta’s arm. “The cuttings took well to the soil. I planted them beneath the shade of the birch trees near the river.”
Cassian watched Nesta disappear into the garden. Surveyed the way a strand of golden brown hair that had escaped her loose braid floated on the breeze, as if it was part of the element rather than separate, as Elain bent to show her the snowdrops.
Yet despite the clear ease to Nesta’s movements, Cassian couldn’t help but ask Feyre whether everything was okay when she came over to hug him goodbye.
“We’re fine,” Feyre assured him, as together they watched Mor tentatively sit beside Azriel on the couch. For once the Shadowsinger’s shadows didn’t lighten, but Azriel still turned to her, drawn by some magnetism as she began to speak with him.
Slim fingers closed around his. Squeezed. “Thank you for fetching the book of fairytales for Nesta.”
The strand of ebony hair that had wrangled free of Cassian’s hair tie tickled the side of his forehead as he inclined his head. That had been a long time ago, when Nesta was a viper that he dared to poke with a stick, just so he could get a reaction. “Of course.”
“You travelled all that way on barely healed wings just to fetch a book.”
It wasn’t just a book, but Cassian knew Feyre understood that, so he only grunted, “Az took me most of the way. He waited to winnow me back.”
But Feyre’s eyes were burnished, as she asked, “Is there anything you won’t do for my sister?”
“It depends,” Cassian replied honestly. Because although he’d rather die than see Nesta hurt, Cassian wouldn’t hesitate to stand up to her when her fire was ill-wrought. And that’s what he liked about the both of them: if he was an ass Nesta told him straight, and he did the same for her. A grin slashed across his face. “Your sister has claws and teeth when she’s angry.”
It wasn’t long before Sala landed on her four large paws in the garden, prompting goodbyes. Mor winnowed Nesta and Sala, whilst Az’s scarred hand closed around Cassian’s arm.
Together, Cassian and his brother passed through realms of shadows and light and raging wings. Then Illyria was taking shape before Cassian bit by bit: there was the sting of winter on his cheeks, the crunch of snow beneath his feet, the scent of pine and untamed air. It felt like that wonderful first heave of your lungs after being starved from air. It alerted Cassian senses—woke him up.
Not bothering to say goodbye for the second time, Azriel bled straight back into shadow, but Mor raised a hand in a parting wave from where she stood beside Nesta and Sala. Her long golden hair caught on the breeze. It tussled behind her like its own puff of wind, before she vanished into nothing.
When Cassian’s eyes snapped to Nesta, he found her standing with her eyes closed, breathing in the wilderness of their surroundings. After a few beats, Sala jumped onto her hind legs, climbing up Nesta’s body with her snow-crusted paws to knock her head impatiently against Nesta’s.
A breath of laughter clouded in front of her as Nesta ruffled Sala’s ears. She murmured something Cassian couldn't identify in the manticore’s ear, before Sala dropped onto all fours and padded through the snow in the direction of the main camp.
Cassian watched the manticore go. He suspected Sala was going to seek out the widows camp and check everything was in order. It was the kind of thing Nesta would fret about—that whilst she was warm and fed, others might not be extended the same courtesy.
Or, the dark part of his mind whispered, she wants Sala out of the house.
You can fuck me wherever you like in the bungalow, Cassian.
The many needles of thrill pierced through him just as Nesta met his stare from across the snow. Suddenly, Cassian didn’t know what to say. His tongue felt swollen and thick in his mouth, words suddenly as viscous as tar. The atmosphere had altered—the aura surrounding them despite the distance suddenly heavy with promise: a change that pointed to something new.
The siphons on the back of Cassian’s hands glowed in anticipation. Nesta merely raised an eyebrow at him. Turned. Walked towards the house just as he caught the thick scent of jasmine and vanilla on the wind.
Cassian’s nostrils flared as it wound around him; invisible ropes of arousal. And then he was moving, following Nesta’s footprints.
His friends had winnowed them to the back of the house, halfway between the small stone outhouse and the backdoor. They weren’t far from the bungalow, but it felt like miles as Cassian stomped noisily after Nesta, his boots compacting the snow as if they were grinding shards of glass into powder.
When Cassian drew up behind Nesta, she already had a hand half-raised towards the door. Even though he wasn’t touching her, she was a whirlpool of warmth. It sucked him in, begging him to line his torso against her back, so when she cursed, realising she hadn’t taken her gloves off, Cassian didn’t hesitate to reach over her shoulder and rest his palm against the wood, encasing her.
The touch of his bare skin—or Nesta’s—was the key to the magical lock. A thunk sounded as the bolt released but Cassian didn’t push open the door—was too preoccupied with the female before him—who had twisted to stare up at him.
As soon as their gazes snagged, history began to knit together in a rush of thread, until it was a tangible, living thing. Because this moment had been written in the stars as soon as Cassian had seen Nesta in her amethyst dress in the human realm; her hair wielded into a mighty crown, her expression haughty and defiant, yet burning with the potential of a life not yet lived. They’d denied that history, even as it waited patiently in the wings. It had watched as they danced around each other, fumbling and snarling their way to this very moment—
They moved in unison. Cassian’s head bowing just as Nesta reached upwards; her body bowing to his, her palms sliding across his jaw until they were around his neck. Their lips met with a force that rattled Cassian’s bones. This wasn't a brush of a kiss. This was immediate and awakening: Nesta tasted like life and breath, like destiny. And yet again, Cassian knew with startling clarity that they were meant for this, he and Nesta. They were meant for each other and nobody could tell him otherwise, including her.
A soft breath whooshed out of Nesta as her back hit the door, but then Cassian was pushing it open, guiding her inside in a whirlwind of noise and wreckage.
The scrape of wood on the flagstone tiles sounded as Nesta’s back knocked against the table before Cassian turned them, his wings grazing against cupboards and the cool walls. Items clattered and shattered, but Cassian used his wings to keep a check on his surroundings, the touch guiding him to the left-hand wall where he could press her against the wall and devour.
Because Cassian could not tear his mouth from Nesta’s. Couldn’t stop tasting her. Couldn’t stop craving the roll of her tongue and the sound of her guttural moans. It fuelled a fireball inside of him; it roared into life in the centre of his heart, before spreading throughout his limbs, rushing through his body until it settled deep in his groin, aching and burning—screaming for relief.
When they finally hit the wall, the thud of their bodies shook the cabinets and the porcelain within it. Without thinking, Cassian took the brunt of it, his hand flying to cup Nesta's lower back and head to purposefully shield her from the hurt.
Because he was coarse and rippling, galloping towards a primal sort of wilderness that Cassian wasn’t sure he could control.
If Nesta was ignorant to the fact or wholly aware Cassian didn’t know. All he knew was that her hands were scrabbling at his leather like dancing flames, tugging him closer.
When he pressed his body over hers, aligning every inch of her to every inch of him, she whined.
Cassian swallowed it. Slanted his mouth across hers. Tucked his wings in tight as every muscle in him tensed in anticipation.
Nesta tasted of chai and vanilla and embers with a destiny to roar.
Another strangled noise came from her throat as Cassian sank his hands deep into the hair at her scalp, coaxing strands free from her braid as his fingers threading through her hair, just as he had done the night prior when he’d coaxed her to sleep. But this wasn’t a soothing touch. This was a touch to startle every nerve ending to life.
Time began to bleed around them, but Cassian only registered the fluidity of the frantic dance they had not learnt. The way Nesta arched into him as his palm slid back to span her waist. The pant of her breath against his skin. His heaving chest. The way his wings began to spread again of their own volition, like a fan unfolding to reveal a secret pattern—as if they were controlled by nothing but the ache of his cock as it strained against the leather of his pants.
As if in acknowledgement that his body was no longer ruled by him, his hips slanted upwards of their own accord. It was a desperate bid to relieve the ache, and his throat vibrated with a thunderous growl as Nesta dug her nails deeper into the leather of his jacket, using it for leverage as she arched into him.
Something turned further inside of Cassian, like a lock beginning to grind as a key turned. And then it felt as if he were plunging beneath water; ducking into the depths and travelling beneath an invisible barrier before emerging on the other side buoyant and surging with power.
Ruby crashed through his veins, like the walls of a dam broken free and… singing light. Magic roared so loudly in Cassian’s ears that he no longer heard the galloping beat of his heart or the sawing of their breath.
Reeling, he tore his mouth from Nesta’s. Her eyes were just as wide, puddles of startled moonlight—endless mercury—and Cassian didn’t need to look down to know that her hands were wreathed in silver.
For a moment they stared at one another. Time slowed until it was sluggish around them and then the feeling receded, as if Cassian was being carried by a wave as it was dragged unwillingly from the shore on thundering feet.
Sound bled back into Cassian’s ears, like raindrops slowly blotting paper. A moan whispered on a wind carried through him, the words fleeting—her name three times, like always—before they dispersed into nothing and ragged breathing filled the hole.
Fuck, they needed to be careful. He needed to be careful if just kissing her led to some transcendental experience. Cassian knew Nesta became open during sex—had seen tumbled images of tangled limbs and heard her moans—and he couldn’t afford to lose her when she had finally let him in. Couldn’t let her down, even though he wanted nothing more than to finally be found worthy by someone.
That twisted rope between them couldn’t widen and strengthen. Couldn’t finally open and click into place with a consensual snap.
Because Cassian had heard stories of mates who had gone to bed. Who had fleetingly accepted what they wanted in their hearts but not in their minds. And after they had both finished and life had been breathed into that bond, only death could sever their Cauldron-blessed connection.
Cassian would not have a mate with regrets, but he didn’t have the will-power to deny himself of her any longer. Not when he could scent how much Nests wanted him. When he could feel it like an unquenchable ache in his bones—an ache which made him tremble and shake. His rocky warrior exterior ground to nothing but sand.
As if Nesta could read his thoughts she tipped her head back, baring the column of her neck.
A resounding guttural sound dragged from his throat. The noise was animalistic and unchained. A booming crack ricocheted around the walls, the muscles in Cassian’s back burning as his wings snapped outward.
Something toppled from somewhere and crashed to the floor, but Cassian didn’t bother to raise his head to look at what it was.
And then time seemed to both slow and drive into a frenzy. Cassian launched at Nesta’s neck at the same time he tugged at her hair, urging her head to fall back even farther.
His lips were against the column of her throat in the blink of an eye; his teeth scraping, his mouth sucking until her blood pounded in his ears. Nesta’s knees buckled but Cassian quickly pinned her body to the wall, holding her up, his knee sliding firmly between her legs…
And… nothing. There was no panic or sensation of being trapped—no sudden fire launching him back thirty feet—but Cassian still tore his mouth from Nesta’s neck. Had to know she wasn’t panicking. “Ok?” he rasped.
A frown burrowed Nesta’s brows. Her swollen lips parted in confusion. Somehow it made her look more beautiful.
Cassian raised a shaking hand to trace it away. “Nesta. Are you ok?”
Understanding dawned like millions of unfurling petals.
When Nesta spoke she was short of breath, the words an exhale. “Don’t hold back.”
Cassian practically arched into her at the words but he made himself remain still, even as his body vibrated with tension. His bones creaked but he held fast.
That stubborn, beautiful chin lifted and Nesta’s eyes glinted wicked yet pure. Always an oxymoron, his Nesta.
“Don’t hold back,” she repeated, her voice stronger this time. She pushed her hips against his thigh and the friction had her lips parting, a shaky breath tumbling from her lungs. “I can take it.”
The words were like slashing knives of pleasure, severing the leash on any control Cassian thought he had.
The subsequent rush of air Cassian loosed was akin to a snorting horse.
Then he was moving and their mouths were fused together again, their tongues a delicious push and pull of control and pleasure before he yanked away.
“Thank fuck,” he gasped. His hands flew to her hips, guiding her to ride his thigh. “Thank fuck, Nesta.”
The friction had Nesta moaning, her fingernails digging so hard into the leather of his jacket Cassian was sure she had dented the material. But he didn’t care. Didn’t care about anything but the living fervour that clawed at them.
His hands were everywhere at once. Tangled in her hair. Sliding over her cheek. Cupping her ass. Attacking the buttons at the back of her dress, until they popped and scattered. Until he could pull the material down her arms, exposing tantalising creamy skin.
At the first sight of her breasts, Cassian growled. He bowed his head to capture a nipple sharply between his teeth before he laved over it with his tongue, smoothing over the wound. He relished the way Nesta cried out. Arched into him. She began to tear at his jacket. It snagged on his wings but Cassian shrugged it off until it hit the floor with a thud.
The first slide of Nesta’s palms beneath his tunic was like oil sizzling in a pan. Cassian hissed as the callouses of her palms scraped deliciously over his skin and scars and ink. Snarled as she made quick work of the stays and fastenings. Tried to focus on her other breast as she inched her hand beneath the tight leather fabric and eased him free.
Fingers wrapped sinfully around him, causing Cassian to snarl around a peaked nipple—to buck sharply—pressing them more firmly against the wall.
“Don’t bother,” Nesta moaned as Cassian wrenched desperately at the fabric of her dress, trying to coax it further down her body. She ground down onto his thigh as it to emphasise her point—her need—and the heat of her burned.
It was all Cassian needed to hear. He fumbled desperately with her skirts until a hand was under the material and sliding up her thigh. Until fabric ripped and her underwear fell away in what Cassian imagined to be a ripple of lace.
In one swift movement, Cassian lifted Nesta’s body upwards, until her legs were gripped tightly around his hips and her back was flush against the wall. Her hands flew to find purchase, grappling at the back of his neck, and when she was steady she raked her hand purposefully through the hair which had come loose from his tie. Tugged at the leather until his hair fell over his face. Whined. Tangled her fingers through the ebony strands as if they were her reigns.
Cassian splayed the hand that wasn’t supporting her body against the cold wall. Tried to catch his breath, but the position evened out the height between them. Just a slight movement would allow him to capture her lips with his, and Cassian couldn’t deny that demanding tug that drove him to devour. Nesta seemed to feel the same way. Moaned in relief as Cassian tasted her as if he couldn’t get enough, gave back as good as she got. Over and over they moved, until they were nothing but an undulating wave of tongue and teeth and groans. The pleasure was a surging, roiling entity. It was all consuming. It overtook Cassian’s body, demanding that his hand drag from her ass straight to her core.
When his fingers slid through wetness, Cassian’s groan sounded like thunderous defeat. He dropped his head to Nesta’s collarbone. Gently pressed his lips to her clavicle. To her shoulder. Tried to ground himself as he slid straight to the spot that made her keen—as pleasure ignited down the bond like a crashing wave. Brushed over it again and again and again. Relishing in the noises he coaxed from her. At the curling fists of desire that clenched agonisingly inside of him.
Cassian had to see Nesta fall. Had to look into her eyes as she broke.
But he wanted to be inside of her when it happened.
Cassian was reaching for his cock at the same time that Nesta let out a broken moan. “Do it,” she breathed. There was no bite of authority in her voice, as if all of the energy she had directed in the pursuit of pleasure had smoothed over the serrated edge of her personality he loved so much, leaving a softer version in its wake. “Please. Just—”
A satisfied snarl ripped from Cassian as he felt her want. And in that moment, Cassian knew there would be nothing gentle about how this was going to play out. It was going to be rough and frantic, riding a wave of pleasure that had been building for too long. Knew afterwards that they would sink to the cold floor in a mass of tangled limbs and mingled breath.
And Cassian wanted that. Had never wanted release so badly in his life.
Something clambered in the back of his mind. Something he needed to remember, but his limbs were moving of their own volition. He didn’t even bother to pump his cock or squeeze it to relieve the tension. Only cared about finally being inside of her.
The heat and slickness of her was sinful and divine when he lined himself up at her entrance. The hand he had braced against the wall came to span her cheek. It relied on Nesta clamping on tightly to his waist with her legs and the press of his torso against hers, but they managed it.
Shaking, Cassian raked back the hair that had fallen free from her braid back from Nesta’s face, just as she tugged him in for a bruising kiss.
There was a moment when everything paused and trembled. As Nesta pulled away and stared at him, her eyes swimming silver—glowing with it—her pupils obscured.
His magic surged at the sight of it. Crashed against his skin as if it was trying to escape. His siphons burned bloody.
“Cassian,” Nesta panted. Despite the keen desperation, there was cushion to his name. Gently, Nesta bowed her head until her forehead rested against his. The gesture was surprisingly tender. It tugged at his heartstrings, triggered his hips into movement as they finally pushed forward.
The tight heat that wrapped around him like velvet was so immediate that Cassian swore. Sweat trickled down his back and seeped into the tunic Nesta hadn’t gotten round to discarding. He trembled as Nesta’s breath stuttered and he felt the burning pain mixed with pleasure as he sunk in an inch. Felt the stretch of Nesta’s body as it strained to fit around him.
Claws dug into his back—Nesta’s nails—biting into his skin, until the metallic tang of blood infused the air.
Cassian’s body stilled before he even had a second to register that he needed to stop. That instinct buried deep to make sure she never hurt.
And then a knock rapped at the front door.
“No,” Nesta moaned. She shifted her hips and Cassian sank a little deeper. That pain flared again through the pleasure and Cassian grip on her turned vice like.
Sense stumbled into his desire addled brain, like a fawn on gangly legs.
But then it righted itself.
Another sharp rap at the door cleared his head completely.
He bowed to bury his face in the crook of her neck but Nesta whined. Tilted her hips again, urging him deeper. “Nesta, stop.”
“No.” Her whimper was doused in frustration, but all Cassian could feel was that sharp needle of pain.
He tried to pull back, but Nesta clamped down around him with that incredible strength of hers. The strength that only seemed to appear at times of desperation or anger.
Cassian’s jaw flexed, his features hardening. “I’m hurting you.”
“You’re not,” Nesta countered, defiance colouring her expression.
“I am,” Cassian retorted, not allowing for a passing beat of their hearts to pass before he replied. “I’m hurting you. Don’t pretend that I’m not.”
I can feel it, Cassian wanted to explain, but didn’t. Knew somehow that if he did they might not end up joining at all.
Desire fogged Nesta’s mind and it fuelled the punch to her next words. “I don’t care.”
Ire punched through Cassian’s desire enough for him to see red. “Well, I do,” he snapped.
Nesta’s nostrils flared at his tone and her eyes burned silver. Cassian wondered how everything had gone southward so quickly—they were on a sinking ship and he needed to patch it up. Knew she felt rejected. So, he kissed her and pushed back that unquenchable ache he felt for her. Knew it hit home because she gasped softly into his mouth, her surprise tart on his tongue.
He pulled out. As soon as his cock fell free that pain throbbed and ebbed. But Nesta moaned all the same.
Moaned again as he drew his head back to stare at her.
She surprised him when her eyes remained open rather than closed off. There was no hard shield. Nothing but want and a vulnerability that made his heart squeeze.
It gave him the courage to do the right thing.
He kissed her again. Trailed a thumb across her swollen lips, ignoring the desire that roared as Nesta sucked it into her mouth, her tongue darting across the top before the bit down lightly.
“This is how things are going to go,” Cassian murmured lowly, pulling his thumb out of her mouth and across her jawline, trailing the wetness all the way to the sensitive spot behind her ear. Nesta shuddered.
“I’m going to get the door and send whoever it is away,” Cassian continued. He paused to let the words sink in. Lowered his head to trace a path with his nose, up the slope of her shoulder, all the way up her neck until his lips were grazing the shell of her ear. “You will go to your bedroom. When they’re gone, I’ll find you.”
Another shiver coursed through Nesta’s body. Her fingers tightened around his neck.
When Nesta next spoke, Cassian knew he’d piqued her interest. “What then?” she demanded.
“Then I’m going to make you come until you see stars.”
Nesta’s entire body froze. For a long moment, she didn’t so much as breathe, but Cassian felt the throb of her blood and magic as it pounded against her skin.
Then, Nesta’s hands worked between them, until her small palms were splayed across his chest. She pushed firmly, indicating that she wanted to get her down. Her body slithered to the floor, her lean legs falling away from his body.
The sudden distance between them felt like miles.
Nesta lifted her chin. “Hurry or I’ll start without you.”
A breath heaved at Cassian’s lungs and he felt his pupils contract, pushing out his irises until they were swallowed by black. The image of Nesta sprawled on the bed wearing nothing but skin, her legs open, a hand moving between her legs had that coil within him tightening to the point of pain.
A growl spiked through the air as another knock sounded at the door.
Nesta must have known she’d wrangled back control, because she arched a cool eyebrow at him.  “I thought you were going to answer the door?”
A dark chuckle forced its way out of his chest, but it was mechanical rather than true. Because there was nothing funny about resisting Nesta right now and his body seemed to know that.
Cassian reached for her before he knew what was happening. Rested his forehead against hers. Breathed once. Twice. “I need to calm down,” he confessed.
Nesta snickered, but the sound fell flat as her breath hitched upwards at the end. It betrayed the effect he had on her, even as she said silkily, “Did the image of me pleasuring myself get you hard?”
“I was already hard,” he growled. He pressed a lingering kiss to her mouth. “As you well know.”
A hand reached between them. Stroked over him—the touch feather light but tantalising enough that Cassian bucked into her touch.
And then cunning words, “Maybe I’ll let you watch.”
A string of swear words left Cassian’s mouth. He yanked back from Nesta, as if someone had tugged firmly on a leash. Tugged up his pants and jerked ruthlessly at the ties until they fastened, trapping his cock back into the leather.
With a growl, Cassian waved a hand towards the living room—to Nesta’s room to the right of it. “Leave before I fuck you against the wall, Nesta,” he barked.
Nesta’s sly laugh skittered over his skin, and without pulling her dress back up to cover herself, Nesta sashayed through the nearest arch and disappeared.
*** It had been Mas and Roksana at the door, laden with bags full of groceries and supplies from the market. With full access to the house, there was no reason why they shouldn’t have just come right in. Which meant Mas had suspected somehow, enough so that she had left the bags on the front step and remained standing with Roksana a few feet back.
“I am sorry Sinta, but the meat might spoil,” the housekeeper had apologised as soon as he’d opened the door, his hair a tangled mess from where Nesta had yanked it free of its tie. He hadn’t had the sense to recover it from the floor, but he had righted his tunic and fastened his pants.
And thank the Cauldron for that, because Roksana peeked up at Cassian with wide eyes from her position of safety behind Mas’s legs. He didn’t know when Lorrian had brought the youngling back to the camp, but Cassian guessed it hadn’t been easy on the two of them to take a little girl out of the warmth and back into the snow.
Cassian tried to soften the eyes that he knew were a little wild. He raked his hands through his hair and sent them his most disarming smile, but there was fuck all he could do about his scent. So he thanked her, trying to keep his voice light and conversational. Ordered her to take the rest of the day off.
To the housekeeper’s credit, she did not linger. Had merely nodded and rushed Roksana back into the snow, towards the main vein of the camp.
Yet, whilst the housekeeper’s interruption had been unwanted, it did grant Cassian some breathing space as he rammed perishables into the cool box. Because even though Cassian would allow Nesta to decide how this all played out, he needed to lay down a rule of his own: he could give her the space to decide what she wanted—for him to prove that he could be what she needed—but there was one thing he could not suffer through.
And if they had stormed ahead in a hurricane of lust; with Nesta’s back against the wall as Cassian pounded into her… Well, it would be too late for Cassian to lay down his one condition once they were sweaty and sated. Nesta was more likely to get up and walk away. To not look back.
Cassian found Nesta sitting at the dresser in her room re-braiding back her hair.
Leaning against the doorjamb, Cassian opened his mouth to explain who had been at the door, but an iron band closed fast around his chest, robbing him of breath.
“What are you wearing?” The words came out of him eventually, entirely uneven to the point of being choked.
Because Nesta was wearing his shirt. It was the same steel blue shirt she’d worn that first day in Illyria. The shirt that was an identical match to her eyes, purchased before Cassian had realising what his subconscious had done. A shirt he’d had to hide away in the spare room because Cassian hadn’t been able to bare seeing it in his closet—of being reminded that his mate was a ghost who had banished him away.
Go home, Cassian.
Nesta met Cassian's eyes in the mirror. Announced with cool simplicity, “You ripped my dress.”
“And this is your way of torturing me?”
An indifferent shrug. “Why wear my own clothing when I know what fate it will suffer?”
Cassian knew his nostrils billowed, but he remained propped up against the doorframe. Pretended he was stuck to it like glue because his body was trembling for him to launch across the distance and claim her mouth. Her neck. Her.
The silence seemed to unnerve Nesta. Cassian knew that from months of living with her. From months of studying her slight tells when her masks slipped.
Right on cue, Nesta reset her posture—a gesture that most people read as defiant. But Cassian knew it was also a sign of nerves. She shrugged with feigned indifference, even as her throat tightened and that damned pulse fluttered temptingly against her throat. “You liked it the last time I wore it.”
Cassian huffed a breath. He had liked it the last time she wore it, even if she’d been so gaunt that he’d worried she might wither away. But the shirt… it had put images in his mind that Cassian had long tried to store away, imprisoned in rock and flame: her in his clothing, not fucking other males but him, her lithe legs wrapping around his waist as he sank deep—
Which brought Cassian neatly to the point he needed to discuss with her…
Nesta’s eyes tracked Cassian in the mirror as he peeled himself out of the doorway and came to stand behind her. When their eyes locked into place, it felt as if someone had punched him in the chest. There was something deep in Nesta’s gaze that made it feel as if he was tumbling down a rabbit hole, that magnetism between them drawing him in like gravity.
When Cassian’s fingers brushed Nesta’s neck—ran down the braid she had draped over her shoulder—Nesta shivered. “You had your hair down then,” he rasped. Didn’t wait for her to protest, as he slowly coaxed the tie free from the end of her hair.
Nesta turned preternaturally still, watched him gently part her hair in the mirror until it fell free from her plait, his calloused fingers brushing over her skin as he coaxed her hair to fall down her back.
The pulse hammering at her throat and the warmth radiating from her skin were the only indications that Nesta was alive rather than stone.
Only when Cassian had finished and lifted his hands from her neck, did Nesta come back to life.
Her throat bobbed as she swallowed. But she cocked her head slightly to dissect him. “It’s a nuisance like this. It gets in the way.”
“It’s beautiful,” Cassian corrected, his voice rasping, like sand scraping against skin. He ran a hand through her hair as if to emphasise his point, his fingers running down, down, down until her waist.
When Nesta stood and turned into the warmth of him, Cassian scented what she wanted. But there was something else simmering in her expression—surprise. As if she’d caught the truth in his words and hadn’t expected someone to truly think her beautiful.
She stepped closer, until the lines of her torso ghosted his. Until Cassian’s heart pounded so hard he could hear the frantic tempo of it in his ears. Nesta tilted her head back so she could stare up at him and Cassian’s hand weaved through the mane of her hair before he could stop himself.
He was desperate to touch her again. Desperate.
But Cassian waited. Waited for Nesta to reach up on tiptoes and press her mouth to his.
The kiss was not like their bruised, desperate kisses from earlier. It was coaxing and unsure; the tentative beginning of something that was not merely fuelled by ardour. But it soon blossomed into something more, like a snowball rolling down a mountain blanketed white, gaining speed as it grew and grew—
Dragging his mouth away from hers, Cassian fought for breath. Battled to remember what he needed to do and say. But then Nesta was tugging his head back down again, her fingers tangled in his hair, the gesture indicative of an insistent need that Cassian knew would not go away.
As always, Nesta tasted divine. Addictive. He could taste the curl of her power on his tongue—silver and white, life and death—and he wondered if she could taste his. Knew his siphons were glowing scarlet—
“Nesta,” he murmured hoarsely, her name a caress against her lips. He couldn’t invoke a distance between them, couldn’t stop touching her. His nose brushed hers as her drew back an infinitesimal amount. Closed his eyes. Inhaled deeply, summoning courage. “You can dictate how this goes between us. But if we do this, I can’t—there’s no-one else. Just you and me.”
The subsequent pause was one of the worst of Cassian’s life. It was barely a breath. The blink of an eye. But it felt as if it was malleable and elastic, drawn out by the hands of fate as everything suspended in time.
He didn’t want to open his eyes, but in the end he managed it. Caught Nesta’s eyelashes flutter downwards, casting shadows on her skin. Her fists tightened in the fabric of his tunic, anchoring him to the moment.
She swallowed. Shook her head. Agreed with a conviction he had not been expecting, “No-one else.”
The relief that swooped through Cassian was so fierce it was painful. But he still didn’t dare to believe it.
He caught her chin between his thumb and forefinger so Nesta could not look away. So he could look into the deep waters of her irises and know she was telling him the truth.
But her gaze was steady and unwavering, as he demanded, “Say it again.”
His voice cracked but Nesta didn’t appear to notice. Her grip on him tightened. “No-one else,” she repeated on an outward breath.
A low, ravaged moan sounded from Cassian’s throat. “Diyosa,” he murmured, slipping into Illyrian. Goddess.
“Bruha,” Nesta corrected. She fumbled over the pronunciation but Cassian felt as if he had been an ember that had burst into flame. Witch.
He let out a rough bark of laughter. Then he swore in a long, drawn out moan. “No Illyrian,” he ordered roughly. Pressed his mouth firmly against hers, the kiss searing. “Otherwise this will be over far too quickly.” Another kiss. “And I want to take my time.”
The smile Nesta painted against Cassian’s lips was feline. “You’ve made a lot of promises, General. I hope you don’t disappoint.”
Cassian snarled. Spun her body until her back was cradled against his chest. “I have, haven’t I?” he mused lightly, even though the hammering of his heart must have beat a betraying rhythm against her shoulder blade.
In the mirror, Nesta’s expression grew less poised and controlled. Delight mixed with anticipation clung to her features at this game they played; this tussle for control. She did not try to wrangle free from his hold or shift uncomfortably in his arms at having her back enclosed against his.
It thrilled him—that trust. Enough so that when he met her eyes in the mirror, Cassian found that his irises had been swallowed by his pupils until they were only a ring of chocolate gold.
Slowly, Cassian brushed Nesta’s hair over to one shoulder with his left hand. Traced his fingers down the arc of her neck to her collarbone. Continued a path down the centre of her chest, to the pyrite which glittered between her breasts.
When his fingers met the first button of his shirt, Cassian toyed with it. Purposefully grazed his nose against the shell of her ear. “Shall I start here?” he murmured. “Undress you in front of the mirror whilst you watch?”
Nesta suppressed a shudder, but Cassian caught it. Could swear he felt her blood boiling beneath her skin as he slipped the button free of its hole. Then another. And another. Until there were no more buttons and the material hung free.
Leaning back into his body, Nesta rested her head against his chest. Curved her back slightly so her chest thrust upwards, silently instructing him where she wanted his hands.
And Cassian couldn’t deny her. He turned his palm so it was face up and curled into a loose fist. Brushed his knuckles down her sternum all the way to her bared naval, before bringing it back up. His fingers ran up the side of the material free of buttons, until he was at her collarbone—her shoulder—leaving a litter of goosebumps in his wake.
This time, Cassian snickered when she shivered. Dropped a slow and deliberate kiss to her bare shoulder as he slowly, slowly inched the material down, down, down over her arm. Repeated the motion on the other, until the shirt pooled onto the floor, exposing her bare body to the mirror: endless creamy skin, divine curves, the luscious full weight of her bare breasts, and… lower.
Nesta’s eyes, which had been tracking the fabric as it fell away, snapped to his as a feral growl ripped from him. And she moaned at the expression on his face. Grabbed at his hands, pulling them to her body.
“Touch me,” Nesta hissed, but it came out strangled. Almost pleading. Another crack in her armour as it broke and fell away.
The sight was enough to threaten Cassian to his knees. He guided her body backwards, his hands splaying firmly across her stomach despite her whine, until his legs hit the edge of the mattress
Neither of them broke eye contact in the mirror. Not when Cassian coaxed Nesta down to sit on the bed with him. Not when he pulled her between his legs, her back firmly against his chest. Not when he bowed his head to kiss the slope between her neck and shoulder.
When Cassian finally brushed a thumb over her nipple, Nesta back bowed so fiercely Cassian was thankful he had an arm strapped across her stomach.
The small noise she loosed fuelled his fire and Cassian held on to her. Stroked over that peaked nipple again as Nesta careened into his touch. Followed it with a firmer roll with his thumb and forefinger. Used the fingertips of his other hand to draw slow, tantalising circles across the silken skin of her lower stomach, before he moved southwards…
The air around them hushed when Cassian’s fingers stilled. Anticipation built and only when it vibrated with tension did Cassian slide his hands to cradle Nesta’s hips.
A snarl of frustration, but Cassian paid the sound no heed. Only grazed his thumbs over Nesta’s hipbones. Watched her expression in the mirror—the way her face contorted as she squirmed into his touch as if she was a puppet on strings. Ground back onto him, pressing into that building ache that was bordering on painful.
Fuck, Nesta.
Cassian wasn’t sure if he had spoken out loud or in his head, all he knew was the blessed, fleeting relief he felt as he bucked into the small of Nesta’s back on instinct. He was rock hard and thirsting to be touched, but the thickening scent of Nesta’s arousal pulled his focus.
A groan rumbled from Cassian’s throat as Nesta’s hand darted between her legs. He caught her wrist just in the nick of time. Kissed the heart of her palm. Rumbled into her ear, “Not yet, sweetheart.”
His voice was coarse enough that Nesta shivered, the goosebumps travelling down her skin like a cresting wave. She didn’t struggle against him, nor did she move to disobey him as he dropped her wrist. Instead, she waited, trembling and shaking at every pass of his thumbs over her skin.
Cassian buried his nose behind the shell of her ear. Breathed Nesta in, steadying the drum of his pulse.
Not once did he take his eyes off of hers in the mirror, especially as he murmured, “Shall we find out if you’re wet for me?”
Nesta squeezed her eyes tightly shut, as if the movement would steady her. Swallowed hard. It was so unlike her to take stock, to show any signs that she was rattled, that Cassian softened. He nuzzled at her neck, trailed a line of kisses instilled with promises. A hand flew up to tangle in Cassian’s hair, keeping him there.
“Yes.”
The word stuttered out of Nesta on several staccatos, but she forced her eyes open and met his gaze in the mirror. Watched as he pulled her tighter against him and hooked her legs over his thighs so she was spread wide. Slipped his hand across and down…
The first ghost of a touch had Nesta panting through her nose. The second had her gritting her teeth. The third had her moaning, her back bowing so sharply as he skimmed straight over the place she wanted him the most.
Her head hit the centre of his chest with a resounding thud that had his bones creaking, but she did not look away from him. Seemed to know the game they were playing without him having to express it.
When Cassian brought his fingers lower and discovered just how wet Nesta was, he had to force his wings in tight to his back to hide his surprise. Growled, “You’re soaked.”
Pleasure and embarrassment twisted in Cassian’s stomach, and Cassian wanted to tell her that it was not something to be ashamed of, that he wanted her just as much as she clearly wanted his fingers between her legs.
Her eyes glinted steel, her stare commanding. “Make me come—“ she ordered, but Cassian chose that moment to roll his finger over that spot at the apex of her thighs.
The command bottomed out of Nesta as she inhaled sharply. Satisfaction bloomed inside of Cassian; because he may have done this countless times before but barely enough with her. And nothing seemed to matter apart from him seeking out her satisfaction. Of learning about what made her body freeze with pleasure and what made her come undone. “There?” he murmured into her ear, repeating the movement, before he passed his fingers down further. Until they were at her entrance, playing gently before he drew upwards and circled.
This time, Nesta groaned. Her hips jerked sharply beneath him, tilting, guiding him to just the right place.
Picking up on the cue, Cassian increased the tempo and friction until Nesta’s hips were rolling in a punishing rhythm against the hard length of him.
And Cassian snarled in satisfaction, his fingers tightening around her hip in a plea for her to keep moving—to not stop pushing back on him—because it was blissfully good. The rapid tightening in his groin was almost painful, the cord so tight that Cassian thought it might snap. But he couldn’t stop Nesta, not when she looked so bewitching, the arousal so stark on her face as he stroked and circled and pressed.
Burning pleasure clambered to its peak and Nesta’s eyes grew so heavy they fluttered closed. Something unintelligible left her lips, her head tipping back into the heart of his chest.
When Nesta’s arms wound around his neck, her knuckles accidentally grazing the leather of his wings, Cassian part-snarled, part-roared. Swore. Held her even tighter as his wings snapped out high and mighty behind him. They wrapped around Nesta’s body before Cassian’s pleasure-fogged mind could stop them curling towards her, starved for her touch.
Fuck, he was unhinged. So desperate for relief—in the scent and feel of his mate—that his control was barely there. Enough so that he didn’t react when Nesta reached out her hand—
Sense knocked Cassian for six only when Nesta’s fingers were millimetres from touching the membrane. He drew back his wings so fast  the air around them stormed, but he swooped in before surprise could register on Nesta’s face. Dipped his chin and coaxed her head even further back so he could claim her mouth.
The taste of her lips was as vital as breathing, the scrape of her nails on his scalp grounding. He moaned into her mouth at the same time as she whimpered. His hand was still moving between her legs, interchanging the same three patterns over and over again, mixing things up as soon as Nesta’s moans grew too untamed: he wanted to draw out her pleasure, not sate it with a few choice strokes.
Pulling away, Cassian pressed a kiss to her forehead. Coaxed her to dip her chin until she was looking back at their reflection in the mirror: ebony and golden brown, tan and cream.
Nesta’s irises were wisps of silver, but when he traversed past that bundle of nerves so he could slip two fingers inside of her, they flickered into living flame.
That was indication enough that she liked what he was doing. Cassian had quickly learnt that Nesta became completely readable between the sheets, that mask slowly crumbling away until she broke completely.
Curving his fingers as much as he could, Cassian pressed upwards hard—again and again— revelling in the strangled sounds Nesta made. The way she writhed but tried her best to hold his gaze.
Cassian dropped a lingering kiss to the crown of Nesta’s head. Murmured into her hair, “Is that good, sweetheart?”
The only response Cassian received was a long moan which extended into a whine as he withdrew his fingers. Then a sharp cry as he swept them upwards, swirling them in a well-practiced motion that had Nesta’s lower half seizing in pleasure.
Cassian circled again. Again. Firmer. Faster. Nesta’s cries grew louder, her breathing became more laboured. A silver wreathed hand flew to his forearm—not to stop him, but to keep him there.
Don’t stop. Don’t stop. Don’t stop.
The bond between them creaked and cracked as it expanded.
Nesta panted his name.
“Are you going to come for me, sweetheart?” Cassian scratched out.
In vain, Nesta attempted to burrow her head into his shoulder, but Cassian’s voice dropped out of soft and into the role of general within the fraction of a heartbeat. “Eyes on the mirror, Nesta, or I’ll stop.”
It seemed to take all of Nesta’s energy to fight her leaded eyelids and meet his dark eyes in their reflection. When she did, Cassian’s magic roared and pounded beneath his skin, as if it was trying to break free and join Nesta’s. There was a pressure and power fuelling the sensation that was separate to him. It was like the magnetic force which rules the relentless ebb and flow of the tide—that desperate crash followed by a scrabbling, thundering retreat.
That twisted rope between them grew corporeal, tugging at their ribcages as if it was clambering to remind them both of its existence. Of the cost of this exchange.
Something deepened in both of their gazes, but if Nesta had felt what Cassian had, she gave no indication. She only arched her hips back into his, grinding backwards.
Cassian loosed a rough groan that skittered across the shell of her ear. Her gaze was purposeful but hooded, as if she was in a continual battle with the pleasure weighting her eyelids.
“Good girl,” he praised as Nesta’s eyelashes fluttered from the strain of maintaining eye contact. And then his fingers were everywhere at once and Nesta’s moans fell away to short gasps that rose in volume.
Nesta tightened her fingers around his neck, scrabbling for purchase, for some sort of tether as her pleasure launched high into the air. The hand that had been at her hip, steadying her, encouraging her to roll back on him moved to her breast; cupping and pinching and rolling as she stuttered pants and words that Cassian couldn’t make out.
When Cassian slid two fingers inside of her again and pressed down firmly on her clit with his palm, Nesta’s cry was wild.
“Look at me,” Cassian ordered as Nesta’s eyes flew shut. His voice was resonant—startling—even to him. It punched through the bubble that had encased them—their entwined scent—and Nesta’s eyes snapped open.
For a beat, time seemed to stand still around them. Their gaze fastened back into place and for a moment, Cassian could see a conflict of thoughts swirl in the magic of Nesta’s irises.
He froze just as anguish crashed down that bond, right into the heart of his chest.
It knocked the breath from him. Confusion rattled inside of his head but he came up empty of answers. Had he gone too far? Had he hurt her somehow?
“Sweetheart—“ he started, but stopped. Unsure of what to say because he could still smell how much she wanted this. Could feel how soaked she was. But perhaps that was what the mating bond did. Fooled reason with an overwhelming drive to pleasure and claim.
Cassian went to draw his hand away but Nesta’s hand whipped out, her fingers curling around his wrist. Desperation flooded her next words—the plea in them stark. “Don’t stop.”
As if to punctuate her point, she rolled her hips. His fingers slid over her of her own accord and she stumbled a moan. Light barrelled down the bond and Cassian’s blood spiked, thrilled as he felt the truth of her words, as she ground back into him again.
“Fuck that feels good,” Cassian grunted into her ear. His hips pushed into the small of her back, accentuating his point. It chased the delicious reprieve from the ache in his cock, even as he knew this moment wasn’t about him. As he pulled her back into the solid muscle of his chest, steadying her movements so he could pick up where he left off: so he could watch the pleasure whip away her conflicted expression until her eyes were once again blazing with the promise of flame.
Silver mist climbed from Nesta’s fingertips into the air. It crawled over the glowing ruby siphons across the backs of his hands, past the corded muscle of his forearm and the rolled up sleeves of his tunic, to his chest, his neck…
A sheen of metal shone in Cassian’s eyes, flickering across his irises so they appeared to turn a metallic gold. The lick of Nesta’s magic didn’t burn. It was a rush of heat—the tender caress of a lover’s kiss instilled into his skin over and over again, ascending Cassian to another realm of pleasure, as if he’d climbed a staircase to an entirely new place.
It felt like an extended method of foreplay Cassian had never been privy to before, lighting up every nerve ending until he was so hard he could cut stone.
Gritting his teeth through the pain-cloaked pleasure, Cassian focussed instead on Nesta’s bare skin.
The tempting fullness of her breasts. The way desire had completely rewritten her countenance. The way she whimpered and then cried out.
Cassian sped up his movements. Until his fingers were no longer teasing, but dancing over her with sure, quick movements designed to thrust her towards a crescendo.
Nesta’s magic swirled into flame, the heat of it a licking promise down Cassian’s limbs. He groaned, swore at the exquisite pain on her face as she hung at the precipice, ready to plummet into rapture.
Her climax became a tangible, living thing and Cassian wanted to see it play out for as long as he possible could. Wanted to see her break for him again and again and again.
So, he waited until she reached the summit and when she was there he slowed down his movements. Ordered through her whimpering, “Look at me Nesta.”
Metallic irises met his, and then Nesta was trembling and shaking in fits and bursts as her release ripped out of her like a taut cord cut loose. Cassian drew her orgasm out as best he could, suspending that pleasure until finally Nesta slumped against him, spineless.
She turned her head to bury it in his shoulder and Cassian let her. Stroked her hair. Pressed a kiss to her sweaty head. Murmured, “Good?”
Slowly, Nesta nodded, but for a long while, that was the only communication he received. But Cassian let her recover. Watched the way her ribcage moved as she heaved for breath. Relished the way her body was splayed out over him, her legs held wide open from where they were hooked over his thighs.
Unable to help himself, Cassian brushed over her sex. Delighted in the way Nesta shuddered rather than batted him away. Fresh desire reignited across her expression and Cassian played gently for a few minutes, revelling in the wetness that had gathered from her release.
Finally, Nesta lifted her head to meet his gaze again. “Did I burn you?”
“No,” Cassian replied hoarsely, his heart squeezing at the genuine fear in her words. He let out a rough laugh, passed his fingers lightly over the knot at the apex of her legs for the last time before he withdrew them.
Nesta moaned softly, even as her brow twisted into a small frown.
“It felt good,” Cassian elaborated. He kissed her shoulder at the same time that he pushed his hips into hers as if to demonstrate just how much he’d liked her magic. “I’m being strangled to death in these pants,” he confessed.
When Nesta cocked her head, her hair moved in a golden tangle. Then she smirked. Unravelled her limbs from him and turned.
Nesta slung her legs over his waist so she was straddling him just as Cassian’s hands caught in her hair. A booming sounded as his wings snapped out and fanned behind him, settling like falling fabric.
“We can’t have that,” Nesta remarked, her breath a whisper against his skin.
“No,” Cassian agreed roughly. “It’s your favourite part.”
Nesta snorted a laugh, but it was not derisive. “Egotistical bat,” she muttered.
A slow, smug smile was Cassian’s only reply. Because he was more focussed on her mouth. With the feel of her silken skin beneath his palms as he ran them up her legs and over her rounded ass. His touch was a promise as he tugged her into his body and ground up into her core, the seam of his trousers doing nothing to relieve the damning ache in his cock.
Together they gasped, and then, as always, they moved at the same time, their mouths slanting one another within a fraction of a second.
The heat of Nesta was liquid, the touch of her smoke—feverish and everywhere all at once. It was the same heat that had roared into existence when Cassian had pinned her against the wall earlier, yet… better somehow. Passionate and awake rather than fogged with lust. Life-giving.
A shuddered groan was pulled from Cassian’s chest as Nesta’s hands slid beneath his tunic and met his burning skin. And then the tunic was on the floor—the rest of his clothing was torn from him soon after. It all happened at such speed Cassian could barely keep up, but when Nesta reached for his bare, burning skin—the tattoos on his arms and the faint scar on his stomach—her fingers were gentle.
“Battle scar,” Cassian panted in explanation, as Nesta’s fingers lingered on the silvery tissue that wound over his lower abdomen: a permanent reminder of what had happened to him during the final battle with Hybern. “The trauma was too great for Madja to heal completely.”
“I remember,” Nesta replied shortly and she looked so fierce that Cassian reached for her. Cupped her cheek with his palm.
“Still breathing, Nes.”
Nesta nodded, but when she kissed him this time there was something fierce and desperate about it, her fingers burying deeper into the mane of his hair.
And then a hand was trailing down his skin and closing around his cock. The touch was sinful and a glimpse of the heavens. When he hissed into her mouth, Nesta gripped tighter—until pain laced the pleasure—just how he liked it.
His groan was that of rumbling thunder as she began to move her hand. It was everything Cassian needed, but it was too much, too good. He scrambled to hold on to some sense of control, because he’d never been this close to losing it from just a few touches.
Then Nesta stopped. Glanced downwards—
The realisation thumped through Cassian so loudly his heartbeat punched like a fist against his ribcage.
“Don’t you dare,” Cassian choked out.
Nesta’s eyes shot to his, but rather than looking startled she arched a challenging eyebrow.
“If you so much as try to put my cock in your mouth I’ll explode,” Cassian rasped.
Before she could protest, he was gathering her to him and had slipped a hand down between her legs.
Just the touch of his fingers had Cassian seizing back control. Nesta stilled at the sudden pleasure, as if she was trying to coax time into suspending the sensation.
“Still so wet,” Cassian purred against the tip of her ear.
Gliding his fingers over the centre of her, Cassian paused briefly at the apex of her legs, toying with her clit, before he ran them back down. When he drew his fingers back, rubbing them together and raising them to the faelight, they glittered.
Nesta’s nostrils flared as if she was an animal in heat. And Cassian knew before he spoke that his voice? would be what pushed them over the edge. But he said it anyway, his voice dropping impossibly low,  “Is this all for me?”
Nesta launched at him until their mouths collided, until they were nothing but a clash of teeth and tongues, their skin so flush they may as well have been fused together.
Burying her fingers deeper into the tangled mane of his hair, Nesta tugged sharply. Met his gaze head on. Demanded, “Fuck me.”
All it took was those two words. Cassian moved, flipping them so Nesta’s back was flush against the mattress. He covered her body with his and Nesta whined at the contact, her body bending and arching towards him as if she were a plant and he was sunlight.
Cassian ran a hand up her bare thigh to her ass, coaxing her leg to bend, but Nesta was too impatient. She broke free from the weight of his body, repositioning herself until legs were wrapped tightly around his hips.
An uneven laugh choked out of him. “So stubborn,” Cassian chided darkly, but he allowed his hips to fall into the cradle of hers. Hissed as he loosed his control and thrust so his cock could glide through her centre. “Fuck,” he grunted. “Nesta, fuck.”
Nesta’s breathy whine fuelled the sparks of pleasure that crackled through him like static energy. He kissed her hard. “There’s a high probability I won’t survive this.”
The snort Nesta loosed tried to sound unaffected, but her voice shook as she accused him, “Liar.”
But he wasn’t lying. And Nesta knew it. She had to know it because his walls were now shattered around them in splintered shards.
Yet, Cassian found himself assuring her. “Not lying," he grunted as he passed over her again. Pressed a lingering kiss to her mouth—a parting goodbye as he moved to kiss the underside of her jaw, down the column of her throat. Down further, to flick his tongue and scrape his teeth over both nipples.
He moaned when she moaned; their sounds a chorus of want until he couldn’t take it anymore. Cassian’s claws clipped around the metal of the bed frame at the same time that he pushed off of the palms that were framing her face, until he was on his knees before her.
Despite the desire coursing through him, Cassian’s head was nothing but clear as he slid his hands under Nesta’s ass and lifted her effortlessly, positioning her so that the undersides of her thighs were flush against his knees.
Nesta’s hair was tousled over the pillow, her lips swollen and parted as she surveyed him. When she tried to wrap her legs back around his hips, Cassian held firm. And despite the fact that Nesta listened to nobody, she allowed him to bend her knees and press his calloused palms to the insides of her thighs in silent instruction.
They fell open and a growl rumbled in Cassian’s throat. His hand was fisting his cock, lining it up to her entrance before he knew what was happening. But then he remembered the pain from before. And even though Nesta was more than ready for him, the thought of hurting her made him feel physically sick.
When he moved away, Nesta let out a strangled noise. A hand shot out, closing around his wrist. “You said you’d fuck me.”
Cassian wanted to explain, but that meant alluding to that tie between them, that instinct that couldn’t allow him to see her hurt. Cassian knew Nesta wasn’t ready for that. Knew that if he so much as breathed a word about it that this precious moment would fall away.
And Cassian was selfish. He had to see how this played out. Had to know if Nesta could grow to accept the bond between them—deem him worthy enough to accept something that was Cauldron blessed.
So, he only drawled, “Patience is a virtue, sweetheart.”
One swift movement had Cassian gathering Nesta into his arms. This time, he allowed Nesta’s legs to wind around him. She gripped him like a vice and Cassian knew it wasn’t from fear of him dropping her. When he sat back against the headboard and guided her onto his lap, Cassian expected her to bite out a comment about doing all of the work, but Nesta only let out a pleased sound. Weaved a hand back into his ebony hair. Wrapped a tight fist around his length, twisting once at the tip, before she guided him to her entrance.
Cassian hissed a curse as she closed around the head. Murmured her name into her mouth. Gripped tightly at her hips when she didn’t stop sinking down on him, as he felt that pain mixed with the sweetest pleasure.
“Nesta.” The way he said her name was firm and commanding, but he still had to dig his fingers hard enough into her skin that he was sure it would leave temporary bruises. The thought made him falter, but then that sharp pain flared again as she resisted against him, and he knew that the bruises were a necessary evil. “Nesta,” he barked, “Go slowly.”
Something creaked and cracked between them. A stretching, growing pain reached its fingers down that bond, the sensation strong rather than constricted as it fought to make its way down their usually thin tie.
Nails dug into Cassian’s neck. A whimper sounded in his ears as Nesta fell forwards, burying her face into his neck. “Please,” she whined in frustration. “Cassian—”
She broke off as she clamped down around him and Cassian felt an ebb of pleasure cut through the pain—that promise of something more.
“Don’t make me hurt you, sweetheart,” Cassian pleaded and the rawness in his voice stopped her resisting against him. He eased a hand between them, touched her right where she wanted him. Allowed her to tug his face upwards so she could kiss him. It was infused with desperation and Cassian eased his hold on her hip. Allowed her to lower herself downwards until she had slid another inch deeper. Continued to stroke her until Nesta began to shake.
“I’m going to—,” Nesta gasped against his mouth. Her body trembled and Cassian’s blood roared at bringing her to the edge again so soon, despite the pain. “Cassian—”
Abruptly, Cassian moved his hand away.
Nesta’s snarl whipped around the room, but Cassian smoothed the sound away by fusing his mouth on hers. She stopped shaking but the sharp bite of Nesta’s glare pierced its teeth through his flesh in a flash of silver.
“It will be better if you wait,” Cassian gritted out in explanation when they parted. Nesta’s breath gusted against his skin. “And I don’t think I can hold on if you come so soon. You feel so good, Nesta. So tight.”
As if on cue, Nesta contracted around him and Cassian ground his teeth together so hard that the muscle in his jaw worked. But he let Nesta slide down on him another inch. Then another. And another. Until their hips were finally flush with one another and that pain had bled away until it was nothing.
The moaned words that fell from Nesta were indistinguishable, but he felt her tremor. Felt that surge inside of him as Nesta repeated herself with a whine that indicated she was toppling over the ledge of control, like a glass teetering before it fell.
And then she was moving and Cassian let her. He was unable to think or breathe. Could only focus on the feel of her.
“Fuck,” Cassian groaned. His head thunked back hard against the headboard as she ground her hips into his, testing the feel of him. “This is better than I’d dreamed.”
No soft snicker, only an untamed whine. Then teeth scraping a sinful path down his neck to his pulse.
Cassian’s hips kicked up hard as her teeth nipped.
“Sorry,” he gasped, because even though Nesta had told him not to hold back, he was still concerned about hurting her. But Nesta’s fingernails bit into his skin and her body moulded to him—a delicious second skin—as she inhaled sharply. “Again,” she demanded with a fierceness that did not allow disobedience. “Do that again—”
It didn’t take a second command for Cassian to thrust up hard. And true to her word, Nesta took him all. Did not change her mind and ask him to hold back. Instead, Cassian knew that this was exactly what she wanted—no, needed. She needed this punishing rhythm just as much as he did.
And it felt… incredible. Beyond anything Cassian had ever felt before. The blood roaring in his ears intermingled with Nesta’s cries and the slap of his hips meeting hers, was the only thing he could hear, his senses narrowed down to the sensation of her wrapped around him, so tight …
It was too good. It threatened to break him, to take everything that he was and reform it entirely, as if he was going to shatter and be pieced back together as someone else entirely. The air around them became taut with pressure, tanning leather stretched too tight over a rack, as if their joining controlled one of the essential elements.
“Cassian.” That one word threatened to break him. Not bat or it or you, only his name falling from her lips as if it was their secret. “More.”
Exhaling a curse, Cassian planted his feet firmly on the mattress and thrust up with as much vigour as he could muster. The movement had them slipping from their upright position and Cassian’s claws absent-mindedly closed around the metal bed frame, strapping them in for the ride as his body coiled and tensed as he slammed into her over and over.
Nesta cried out. Grabbed fistfuls of his hair as they moved together as if they had been made for this moment, their wild gasps melded together until they were one.
Only when release teetered too close to the edge did Cassian drop the rhythm. Cupped the breasts he had dreamed of more times than he could count. The breasts he’d had the privilege of seeing bare and glorious only twice before.
Capturing a nipple between his teeth, Cassian scraped his teeth hard enough that Nesta stopped rocking and angled her hips until he was pressing impossibly deep inside her. She whimpered. Clenched and unclenched. Throbbed in a way that told him she was as close as he was—that if he wasn’t so close himself, he could drive her over the edge with a few well-timed thrusts.
The understanding had him letting out a jagged groan. “Are you close, sweetheart?”
A whine in response, but Cassian didn’t let it go. He raked back the hair from her sweaty forehead. Pressed his lips to her swollen ones in a lingering kiss. Watched the frown that knitted her brow as she was overtaken by the feel of them.
“What do you need, Nesta. Tell me and I’ll give it to you.”
Nesta wound her hands around his head, buried her face into his neck. Began swaying and circling her hips in a rhythm that was dictated purely by the chase of pleasure. “Just… this,” she panted. “I just need this.”
Then it was only the licking fire of her breath against his skin. The magic that curled around them like a heated blanket and the building anticipation of both of their releases, which pulled at him like a strange sort of magnetism, begging him to fall with her in unison.
“Cassian—” Nesta began in warning, but he had already felt her begin to quake, as if the ground was moving beneath their feet—the mountains trembling.
That pull became a driving force—a cresting wave of pleasure so profound that Cassian felt that twist inside of him—that signal that he was about to join her.
He groaned, jerking his head back so it collided with wood, the pain grounding him enough that he could say, “That’s it, sweetheart. Come for me.”
As soon as the words left his lips, Nesta broke, as if she’d been waiting for him to ask it of her. Her cry was muffled and Cassian wanted to tear her mouth from his neck—to hear her break for him—but then she was sinking her teeth into his skin right over his pulse.
Roaring, Cassian kicked his hips up hard on instinct as she marked him, but the shock distracted him. Clouded the desperate clamber of his release so he could hold himself back.
Cassian held tightly onto Nesta as she slumped against him. When she lifted her teeth from him, Nesta whined like an animal. Dragged her tongue over the dent she’d made in his neck—once, twice, three times.
He shuddered. Couldn’t help it. Turned his face into her hair. Breathed her in. The gesture was tender, like an animal tending to the wound of a significant other—its mate.
And wrapped in this moment, Cassian could almost believe that this was something more than sex for Nesta as her forehead came to rest on his collarbone. As she kissed the hollow of his throat. Then the knot. His lips.  
“Good?” Cassian asked softly. He lifted a hand to her face, ran a calloused thumb over her cheekbone.
Nesta made a rare, content sound that vibrated through him like a balm. She leant into his hand, her eyelashes swooping down.
When she finally pulled back to survey him, her eyes were still dark. She shifted her hips. Moaned quietly. Rasped, “You’re still hard.”
It was a miracle Cassian hadn’t followed. If it hadn’t been for her teeth in his neck, Cassian would have been wrestling with the embarrassment of finishing too soon.
“I was too preoccupied with your teeth in my neck.”
A flush crept its way up Nesta’s face, like vines reaching their wicked encroaching fingers up a wall. But she raised her chin. “You wanted me to do it.”
It was true, he had wanted her to. And he wanted to do the same to her—to mark her as his so everyone would know that she was off limits for the brief hours before her body healed.
“And what about you?”
The patter of Nesta’s heart broke into a sprint. It was the only thing that betrayed her feelings, her expression devoid of any reaction. “What do you mean?”
Cassian leant forward until their noses brushed. Lifted his eyebrows. “Do you want me to bite you, Nesta?”
Nesta’s nostrils flared. If she had wings, they’d have flung wide by now. Would have collided with furniture and cut through air.
That was answer enough.
In one movement, Cassian lifted himself up and over, until Nesta was on her back and he was pressing her body into the mattress. Breath gushed out of her lungs but it was not from fear, not as Nesta turned herself out bare and tilted her chin for him—for once not in defiance but as an act of vulnerability—of complete and utter trust.
Every instinct in Cassian clambered to the surface, but he closed a fist around it until its life fluttered against the cage of his palms and fingers: his to control, rather than the other way around.
Slowly, Cassian lowered his nose to the exposed skin and breathed her in: her scent and the life that pummelled beneath her skin, the roaring of her blood as it crashed through her veins. It took everything in him not to move inside of her, to thrust up hard and feel the way her breasts would move against his chest.
“I could do it right here,” Cassian murmured, his mouth ghosting over the pale column of her neck until he came across that pulse. He brushed a tongue across it.
The movement was a mirror of what he’d done before in the human realm and Nesta knew it. But this time she did not jerk back from him demanding what he’d done. Instead, her body drew up beneath him, exposing more of her neck, begging for more.
Cassian groaned, raking his teeth over that swell at the same time that he pushed in deep. Nesta’s groan was guttural and everything. His blood turned molten, so hot that he expected his skin to melt away until he was nothing but bones.
“Please,” Nesta panted, her fingers tightening around his back.
Another flick of his tongue over her pulse. “Do you want me to bite you or fuck you?”
“Both.”
That was enough to loosen the fist on Cassian’s control. He sat back on his knees, prying her hands from his neck, coaxing her fingers until they were above her head and clasped around the railings of the headboard. Nesta’s breasts rose with the movement, her peaked nipples so tempting he bent to take one into his mouth. Then the other. Suckled until she mewled and her nipples were no longer rosy but red from his attention.
Cassian lifted his head and surveyed Nesta. Warned her, “Hold on tight.”
And then there was no thinking, no worrying or desperation to hold back. It all came as easy as breathing, their tempo,the snap of his hips and the shift of the mattress as her body shouldered the impact. At some point, Cassian’s body fell over hers, needing to feel every inch of her against him. His wild, punishing rhythm dropped into a rough rocking that was intimate at the same time it was claiming.
Nesta didn’t seem to mind—let out a pleased moan of consent, her legs clamping tighter around his hips until they were flush with hers. When he next moved she whined, and Cassian felt that change inside of her—somehow—that twisting fist of pleasure that glimmered down the bond, pushing against the walls of that thread, pushing it wider and wider, like a heart expanding.
Silver-wreathed fingers tugged his head down until Nesta could claim his mouth, fusing them together so they were complete. Cassian shuddered as her fire cascaded from her fingertips and down his body. His magic, attracted to hers, began to suck out of his pores, but it didn’t leech him of power. Instead, it was like his magic was searching for its mate, desperate to be reunited.
Then that sensation again, as if Cassian had ducked beneath something and had come up for air somewhere else.
Ruby greeted silver like a long-lost lover, blending until their magic was a metallic sheen of scarlet—a fog that misted their bodies, rubbing tantalisingly against their skin as they rocked and moaned their way to release.
“Don’t stop,” Nesta begged desperately through stuttered breaths, and Cassian wondered how many times she’d reached this pinnacle with other males only for it to be taken from her.
Cassian’s hand found its way to her face, his thumb stroking over her cheek as that coiled release twisted across her devastatingly beautiful face. “Can’t,” he panted honestly, his other hand searching for hers across the mattress until he was clasping it—holding on for dear life. “I’m so close, sweetheart. You have no idea how good you feel.”
“Come with me then,” Nesta pleaded. Her eyelashes had fluttered downwards as she took in a sharp breath of pleasure, but now they opened. Stared deep into his soul. “Come with me—”
Then her body turned both loose and taut, clamping yet completely molten as her release ripped out of her.
“Fuck,” Cassian swore. Invisible hands clasped around his ass, tugging him deeper—deeper. Everything in him tightened as Nesta crashed around him, and that siren called to him, singing her name, over and over as pleasure clawed at him, desperate to whip out of him.
Nesta, Nesta, Nesta.
Cassian launched at her neck, his teeth sinking deep enough to claim as Nesta cried out, her body trembling as he continued to thrust into her, wringing out her release at the same time he desperately clambered towards his own.
He managed to pull out just in time, his teeth still deep in her neck, his release spilling hot onto her stomach in bursts of pleasure.
And even though Cassian had vowed to bite her and Nesta had already marked him, he found himself apologising at the red, angry dents in her skin. How was it that he couldn’t bare to hurt her but biting her neck was a completely different story?
“Sorry,” Cassian rasped. His mouth was as dry as a desert as he gingerly touched his fingers to the marks, but Nesta’s fingers clasped around his, halting him. Then she raised her other hand and brushed her knuckles over the identical marking on his. Reminding him that she’d done the same—had been the first to do it.
“I liked it,” Nesta admitted brazenly, but she didn’t stop him from dragging his tongue over the marks. Shivered instead. Held his head to her.
“That was intense,” Cassian rasped eventually against her ear, after the quiet had settled over them like a blanket. He nuzzled at her neck again, unable to help it—just one more precious moment like this until he had to pull away.
When Cassian pulled back to meet Nesta’s eyes, he found that the blue bled back into her irises. “It was always going to be intense,” she replied frankly.
Then Nesta looked down at her body, as if she’d only just remembered how he’d marked her in a different way. “You didn’t have to do that—pull out. I can take a tonic.”
Cassian hadn’t wanted to pull out at all—and neither had that tie which bound them together—but that wasn’t the point. “I’d rather be cautious,” he explained—a little too shortly, because Nesta bristled.
“Neither of us have had a tonic in a while,” Cassian elaborated when Nesta’s expression hardened.
He tried not to think about how his body had been desperate to spill inside of her. For him to press as deep as he possibly could until he was spent.
Climbing off of the bed, Cassian disappeared down the hallway and into the bathroom. When he returned, he was holding a wet towel.
“A while?” Nesta queried, picking up their conversation, as he began to clean her up.
Cassian cocked an eyebrow, but he didn’t dare meet her eyes lest she read him. His shoulders turned rigid at the thought. “Have you been sneaking people in and out of the bungalow that I’m not aware of?” he asked.
They both knew that Cassian would tear any male she brought back to the bungalow to pieces, but neither of them voiced it.
“You go back to Velaris,” Nesta accused. “You visit the other camps.”
For a moment, Cassian stared at her. Did she believe that he’d been fucking other fae? She had taunted him in Velaris the other day, but Cassian had thought that it was just their extended, agonising tussle of foreplay.
Perhaps you should go in search of some female company tonight.
Cassian managed to huff a breath, but it wasn’t one of amusement. He knew that his expression was steely as he said, “I told you that I don’t sleep with Illyrians. And I haven’t been fucking around in Velaris.”
From the way Nesta’s expression darkened, Cassian wasn't sure she believed him.
She opened her mouth to throw back a retort, but Cassian wanted the discussion to end. If she knew he’d barely touched another female since he’d met her, she’d run the other way. It was too intense a confession for someone who didn’t know what they wanted.
“It was self-inflicted,” Cassian supplied, his tone flinty enough to warn her that he wasn’t willing to discuss the subject any further.
Climbing off of the bed to further his point, Cassian extended a hand towards her. Banished any of the rigidity to his posture. “Come stand in the tub with me.”
There was a sinful promise behind the order. Already Cassian could envisage how he’d press Nesta against the tiles, his lips trailing open mouthed kisses as he kneeled before her—
Nesta must have thought similarly, because the pleasure that sparked in his stomach was not his own. But still she studied him, her head cocked as if she was trying to figure him out. Her hair was a muss of golden brown, her skin glistening with sweat that Cassian wanted to lick off.
Nesta parted her lips, taking stock, but Cassian didn’t allow her to speak. “I’ll make it worth your while,” he vowed. Meant it. Because already he was turning hard again, that desire to have her roaring.
He’d known this would happen. Knew that finally being inside of her wouldn’t sate him but stoke the embers into flames. But Cassian didn’t hide it—utterly unashamed of this need for her. From the way Nesta’s nostrils billowed, he knew she'd marked the change in his scent.
Nesta’s eyes flicked to his cock and the she-devil smirked, her lips curving in a way that had Cassian thinking about how they might wrap around him—how her tongue might feel, how warm she’d be…
In one supple movement, Nesta stood. Took his hand, her slim fingers threading around his large ones. Raised her chin and levelled him with a smoky blue gaze that promised wicked, wonderful things. “Then lead the way, general.”
Tags (let me know if you want to be added/removed): @arinbelle @superspiritfestival @sayosdreams @perseusannabeth @mylittlebigplanet @biggestwingspan-az @bellsqueen @ekaterinakostrova @bookstantrash @prophecyerised @rainbowcheetah512 @awesomelena555 @wannawriteyouabook @lovelynesta @melphss @darkshadowqueensrule @laylaameer01 @a-trifling-matter @grouchycritic7794 @thalia-2-rose @champanheandluxxury @swankii-art-teacher @princessconsuela02 @lavendergoomsltd @princessofmerchants-reads @jeakat @sjm-things @imwritingthesewords @nestable @inejbrekkxr @silvernesta @inyourmindeye @amelie775 @helen-the-weirdo @pizzaneverdisappoints @wishfulimaginings @trash-for-nessian @my-fan-side @sophilightwood @valkyriesupremacy @vidalinav @onceupona-chaos @inardour @thesunremembersyourface @teagoddess99 @ellies-iced-coffee @nehemikkele @misswonderflower
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nehemikkele · 4 months ago
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Nessian - My first post
During Spring 2020 my youngest daughter (then 14) handed me a copy of Throne of Glass and convinced me that I HAD to read it (Manorian rules). Fast forward to Spring 2021 and I’m totally invested in Nessian and in complete awe to the fanfic writers that have taken this couple to heart.
I will always love SJM for giving us these characters, but love the writers who keep telling their stories. The fanfic writers are true unsung heroes (well a little bit sung) as far as I am concerned.
As people continue to discover the fanfic pieces, their storytelling arcs seemed to coalesce around a few critical points and can be categorised into (a) finished stories, (b) stories that will be finished and (c) unfinished stories where I don’t know if the author will finish. Chronologically I have arrived at:
Pre ACOFAS:
– Nessian Growth after ACOWAR (a) @donttouchmyrubiesgirl on AO3
- Alone in the Townhouse + Nessian The Mating (a) @Rhysand_vs_Fenrys on AO3
Parallel ACOSF:
– Embers & Light (b) @duskandstarlight – slow healing in the Illyrian mountains and first fanfic I ever read properly, with its own smutty ‘Habits’ AU.
– The Runaway (b) @iammissstark ​ – written with Nesta’s chance to grow amongst those who believe in her
- A Court of Witches and Warriors (a) @arinbelle – slow healing in the Illyrian mountains
- Queen of Monsters (c) @vidalinav – slow healing in the Illyrian mountains, but VidalinaV has done many many stories of Nessian
Post ACOSF:
- Symphonia (b) @darklove9314-blog – Nessian adventure + pregnancy!
- On Your Side (b) by wingsandembers (Jamila) on AO3 – relationship choices
Modern Nessian is covered by a number of good writers and I really like some of the fic by @thewayshedreamed
Smut vs Fluff – both are good for the soul and there are plenty of warnings to avoid if that’s not your type of thing. Rest assured if the fanfic author hasn’t written something you want to see, then there will be other stories out there which will have it. Probably inadvisable to badger a writer into something they don’t feel right doing. As of writing, there are on AO3 approx 21,000 stories tagging Loss of Virginity (roughly equally split between M/M and M/F) and 78,000 stories for tagging Dubious Consent (70% being M/M). Find your kicks elsewhere.
Nesta herself – the more I read of her the more I wonder if she is a mirror crack’d, her depth of positive and negative emotions, emotional and intellectual intelligence and power to make things happen always stand out. She also displays the physical and emotional vulnerabilities everyone has and the struggle to overcome them. In a lot of ways she is the best and worst of all of us, especially those who have difficulty in accepting help even as we tumble down the rabbit hole. Personally speaking, having been physically broken on the hills of the Himalayas quite a few years ago, there was no longer anywhere to hide myself from myself and Chapter 50 resonated.
A final thank you to all the fanfic writers who I have read, to those that I have to yet to read and to those who I will never read but provide joy to others.
Alert: I’m new to tagging so I hope that I get it right. If I don’t please reblog/re-tag to your hearts’ content.
@duskandstarlight
@iammissstark
@arinbelle
@vidalinav
@darklove9314-blog
@thewayshedreamed
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duskandstarlight · a month ago
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Embers & Light (Chapter 38, Nessian fic)
Notes: Happy Wednesday everyone! An update a week later, as promised. I hope you enjoy this one. The latter part of the chapter has been planned for a long time (like a lot of E&amp;L moments). I really hope you enjoy reading it--as usual let me know your thoughts :)
Big thanks to @han-soul-o on Tumblr for proofing this for me :) And this chapter is for @princessconsuela02 who has been having a shitty few weeks--I hope this update cheers you up <3
Chapter 38 Nesta
The sweeping drive of the river house was crystallised with ice when Cassian landed on the stones with Nesta in his arms. It frosted the evergreens that Elain had planted in the beds on either side, the berries of the many bushes dusted in what looked like icicles of sugar.
Nobody moved behind the windows. Nesta supposed everybody was in the rooms that looked out onto the back of the property: the floor to ceiling glass leant an extensive view of the garden, which hugged the entirety of the house and the river that ran at the bottom of it—an arresting canvas for Elain to lend her green fingers to.
Nesta stepped quickly out of Cassian’s hold the moment he set her down on the ground.
They were running late. Their impromptu discovery had left them all reeling but Cassian had stood firm on putting Nesta through her paces in the ring. He’d trained Maya too, insisting she joined them before the female could disappear both literally and figuratively. There had been a self-punishing look to the twin that settled like lead in Nesta’s stomach—a weighty sense of doom, a pregnant thundercloud about to split its seams.
Warm fingers snapped close around Nesta’s wrist before she got too far. It stopped her in her tracks, and whilst the hold was gentle yet firm, Nesta’s body still jerked back in surprise.
She scowled. “What? We’re late.”
Cassian didn’t blink at her bite. Knew her better than anyone else. Held on to her wrist, until Nesta finally yielded and turned to face him fully.
“What?” she repeated. Demanded. Their revelation earlier about Kallon had left a sour taste in her mouth and she wanted nothing more than to be rid of it. She was itching to return to Illyria—to do something. Nesta was fed up of waiting around for Kallon to make a move. They needed to be proactive. Ensure the females in the camps were safe. Had to stop the princeling from completing a ritual that would spill and taint innocent blood.
Yet… there was nothing Nesta could truly do. Even going back to Illyria wouldn’t change their circumstance. According to Rhys, Azriel had left for Illyria in the middle of the night after his shadows had whispered the latest spy reports into his ear. There had been a lead that Azriel believed to be concrete on Kallon’s whereabouts: a makeshift camp in the Northern-most peak of Ironcrest’s territory, where Prythian’s craggy coast rose out of the sea. It had reeked of the rot that came with dark magic—the same they’d found at the cave—but when Azriel had bled out of shadow and into the starry, mountainous landscape, the camp had been deserted.
Nesta was keen to press Azriel for more information over lunch. Wanted to know everything they could do to stop Kallon from bonding a sword to him that clearly had not yet found him worthy.
Because Kallon couldn’t be worthy—not when the blade vanished when he struck to wield it. And yet… Kallon was the epitome of male entitlement. He did not even consider the possibility that the blade was not his right.
And his mother, even knowing what he was, still believed in the prophecy. Even when it seemed that someone was actively forcing themselves into a timeline they did not fit.
The disturbing interpretation of Heroicis also didn’t sit right with Nesta. Why would the book state that a blade instilled with innocent blood would cut down evil, when that act in itself was technically slaughter? Lorrian had said that to clip a younglings wings was perceived as the greatest sin in Illyria, but this was worse. Kallon was breaking girls wings, abusing them and draining their bodies of blood.
When Nesta had raised that point to Rhys, his perfectly carved face had turned flinty enough that Nesta sensed the foreboding of his power. “Magic is balance, but it is not sentient. It does not discriminate between right and wrong. To cut down evil one must forge a blade in its image.”
It was those words that haunted Nesta the most. It didn’t make sense to her, but when she tried to grasp for it, comprehension flitted away, like an insect skating on still air.
Caught in a tangled web of thoughts, she and Cassian had flown down to the river house in rare silence. Sala hadn’t yet returned to the House from flying with the girls, so Cassian had wordlessly tucked Nesta to his body before he’d launched into the skies.
Nesta guessed his thoughts were churning, too, given that he made no attempt to engage with her. Knew Cassian was immersed in them because of the stony quality to his features: the hard, unyielding jaw; the shuttered eyes.
But now that mask had dropped, falling away to reveal what Nesta dissected as concern as he stared down at her.
He opened his mouth. Closed it. Opened it again. “You’re feeling less tired?”
Nesta blinked. It wasn’t what she had been expecting. In fact, she had barely noticed that they hadn’t truly spoken alone since the night before. Their revelation had seen to that.
“Yes,” she conceded slowly, her brow creasing.
“You were gone when I woke up,” Cassian supplied uselessly, and for a moment, Nesta wondered if he was not just worried about her, but…disappointed. As if he had been hoping that when dreams gave way to morning light, she’d still be folded in his embrace.
But Nesta hadn’t been able to stay in the bed with the temptation of him there; with all of his ink licked skin and the tangle of his hair across the pillow. With his wings fanned out and flexible, one moulding to her frame and the other draping behind him across the mattress.
Nesta had an Illyrian bed in her room. Always had. As if the House had known the moment she had been turned freshly fae that Cassian might stay with her.
Elain hadn’t had one. Her bed in the House had been human-size, and rather than hosting intricate carvings of Illyrian wings and the engraved swirls similar to Cassian’s tattoos, her sister’s had been carved with intricate flowers: primrose, hyacinth and crocus.
Just one look at Cassian that morning had a heat tensing in Nesta’s lower belly—an image of him clasping open her thighs as he eased into her. The thought had been unbidden and so pleasurable Nesta had nearly moaned. Had nearly hiked up her nightdress and touched herself with him right there.
Because that desperation to hurtle towards completion—to sate herself—had only gotten worse since they had come together.
It wasn’t just an itch now that wrangled control of her dreams—it was a living fervour. A relentless, pressing ache driving her to inner hysteria.
It was as if being together had opened something intrinsic and addictive. Nesta wasn’t sure if the frenzy would disappear when they got to the bungalow—she had a feeling it would only get worse—but she didn’t care anymore. It had gotten to the point where her subconscious was marking every breath she took, counting them, as if it shaved off a few more seconds until they were alone. Until her back was thumping against a wall, Cassian’s mouth hot on hers, his hands scraping deliciously up her legs as he hoisted her up…
Nesta blinked. The world slid back into focus, but all she saw were Cassian’s wings move and stretch, as if he had caught the scent of her thoughts and was unable to control that innate instinct in him to display and attract.
And if he was barely able to leash his self-restraint when her scent changed, what would Cassian have done if he had woken to find Nesta touching herself that morning? Nesta didn’t think they’d be waiting until the bungalow for him to finally be inside of her. She wasn’t naive or deluded enough to deny what she knew: Cassian wanted her badly. Had felt it stabbing and burning through her when he let his shields slip in those moments when their skin became flush.
Nesta could still scent him on her skin, even though two days had passed since he had spilled across her stomach.
She wanted him to do that again. She wanted to do everything with him and more. She wanted but Nesta knew that things could never extend beyond the bedroom. Because in the end things were always taken from her. It was her punishment for being cold and cruel and spiteful.
It was her comeuppance.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about Kallon,” she answered eventually, deflecting from the heat bubbling beneath her skin. “And I was hungry.”
For a moment, Nesta saw the possibilities rush across Cassian’s expression—all the things he could say. But in the end he only tucked in his wings in a manner that was far too controlled. Nodded tightly.
It hurt to witness. Yesterday they had been so open. Another bit of ice creaking and cracking as they pushed it apart, but it needed to close, so Nesta clamped down a little bit. Not wholly—she was too selfish to get rid of that whisper of ruby power curling around hers—but enough.
She could control her power over their shared tether most of the time. At first it had been instinctive; indicative of her steadfast iron will and denial as she drank and fucked her way through Velaris. But recently she’d blink and realise that she’d let her wards slip without noticing, as if her subconscious was melting the ice that froze that connection between them.
Like yesterday when she’d given him the lullaby. Maybe even before that: when she’d become lost in the crowds. It happened when she was in danger, too. Or when her body thought it was. Her battle fatigue yesterday had rid her of every protective wall she had built around herself.
And as a result, Cassian had found her as if he had been following purposefully scattered breadcrumbs. Those powerful wings had stretched wide as he cleared the crowds and stalked towards her. His worry had been a trapped bird in her throat, and Nesta had known, despite the oily fingers tugging her down into the numb, that she had called him somehow.
That she had sent him a message and he had answered.
Another movement of Cassian’s wings sighed through the silence and Nesta couldn’t help but study them. They were beautiful. With the sun casting its light on the membrane they had turned the colour of the sandstone at the House of Wind: a burnt sumac interwoven with cinnamon.
Her fingers itched to reach up over his shoulder and brush them. Wanted to know what they felt like beneath her fingertips and how Cassian would react when she did it.
She knew what it meant to touch an Illyrians wings. Knew that most Illyrians saw it as the greatest violation to have them touched by another outside of matrimony or the bedroom. But Cassian was different. He treated his wings more like an extension of his limbs; bumping a friend’s arm or curving a wing around someone’s shoulder to guide them where he wanted them to go.
And in the bedroom… Nesta had imagined he’d have been just as open. But he hadn’t extended or encouraged her to touch them, so she had bit down on her curiosity until it quietened. Had thought that he might not want to be that vulnerable with her.
Yet, Nesta still wondered whether he’d shudder or moan or shiver.
Or perhaps he’d do none of the above. Perhaps something would turn inside of him and all that self-control would bleed away into something far more delicious and sinful.
Nesta wanted him that way the most. Frantic and desperate and raw.
She didn’t want to think that he’d extended the courtesy to someone else. But five hundred years without letting someone play with your wings seemed like a very long time to Nesta.
And even though she had no right to be jealous, it stabbed through her like a jagged toothed blade, hooking onto her insides.
Cassian cocked his head at her as Nesta blew out a slow breath to cool the magic that had whooshed to life beneath her skin—at the mere thought of him with someone else.
In her mind’s eye, Nesta imagined throwing a sodden blanket over a silver flame. It extinguished, her blood plummeted and cooled. And not for the first time, Nesta wondered what would happen if that corded threadbare rope between them was severed. Would she still feel this way? Would she not care? How much of their connection was fabricated and how much was true?
It was these questions that kept her up at night, so Nesta tried not to think about it at all. But denial was only sweet until you least expected it, and then it would leap for the throat with bared teeth, sinking its sharp canines into her skin every time Cassian touched her or said something that had her heart galloping.
How I feel about you, it’s always been startlingly clear, Nesta.
But would it be as clear if their bond didn’t exist?
Desperate to deflect her thoughts, Nesta spoke before she had the time to curate her next words, “We’ll go home after lunch?”
As soon as the sentence left her mouth, she realised her mistake. Heat burned her cheeks and Nesta tried to instil ice into her veins, but it was to no avail. “To Illyria,” she supplied quickly—uselessly. “The bungalow.”
The shadow of conflict across Cassian’s face disappeared and he smiled at her—the corner of his lips kicking upwards. It was a true smile. One of soft surprise rather than in delight at the slip of her mask.
And it was that raw reaction that had Nesta’s embarrassment washing away rather than igniting it into an inferno or spat words.
Cassian cleared his throat. Nodded. “Yes.”
“You’re ready to leave?” Nesta continued, waving to the scenery behind her with a hand. Trying to iron over her previous stumble. “Won’t you miss being here?”
“It’s time to go back to Illyria,” Cassian supplied with a shrug, and even though Nesta knew he was referring to Kallon and the training of the females, Nesta’s blood spiked in anticipation. Of his vow to her. And when his voice dropped, knots of desire curled deliciously low inside of her until a glimmer of pleasure rippled. “We have things to do.”
I want to be inside you.
But not until we’re back home where we can have each other wherever we want for as long as we want.
The memory of the dark, guttural words scraped over her skin, a tantalising, drawn-out promise.
Cassian clearly didn’t catch wind of her thoughts, because he lifted a muscled shoulder. “I’m sure I’ll be back in Velaris soon anyway.”
But Nesta wasn’t so sure. With the rising dissent and the threat of Kallon, she suspected they would not return to Velaris for a long while.
“I said I’d take you to the theatre,” Cassian continued, “and you’ll find I hold fast on my promises, Archeron.” Uncertainty flickered onto his expression and in her gut. “Or not,” he corrected quickly. “Up to you.”
Nesta shrugged. Pretended for his sake that she hadn’t seen through his nonchalance. “I’d like to visit Maya.”
And her sisters. But Nesta wasn’t brave enough to admit that yet. There were many things she wasn’t brave enough to admit—like how she had felt a duty to visit her father’s grave but hadn’t found the courage. Because what could she say to her father when there was still so much hatred in her heart? How would she ever reconcile her feelings with the man who had allowed his daughters to starve? With the man who had brought them an armada of ships?
Her father might have struck himself a martyr but to Nesta he would always be someone who had not loved her or her sisters enough to fight until the very last moment.
“We could run further next time we’re here. To the coast, maybe,” she supplied, banishing all thoughts of her father.
Cassian’s gaze on her stilled and deepened. As if he were trying to figure her out.
“You like the coast,” Cassian observed eventually and Nesta nodded. She could have sworn Cassian looked irritated, as if he should have made the connection sooner. “There are some lovely coastal views in Illyria. I’ll take you.”
Nesta lifted her shoulders, even as her pulse began to beat frantically, its usual flutter thrusting into a quickening tempo under his scrutinising gaze. “Ok.”
A pause caught the air and for a moment everything hushed and stilled, like freshly blanketed snow.
“You look nice today.”
Cassian’s voice had melded into deep, rough velvet; a jagged blade wrapped in silk.
It took a moment for surprise to register through the drumming of Nesta’s heart. She cast a surprised look down at her dress. It was nothing unusual—one of the Illyrian dresses Mas had made for her. It was warm and practical but a beautiful royal blue that Nesta was partial to. She had worn it countless times in Illyria…
Swallowing, Nesta reset her stance. Tilted her head so she could analyse him with a dissecting stare that usually had males recoiling. But not him. Cassian just stared right back at her, his expression… serious.
He wasn’t joking. Nesta knew that without lowering her empath shields.
“And usually?” she asked coolly. “Do I look horrible?”
Cassian grunted. It was not with displeasure but amusement. The green in his eyes glinted as if in challenge. He stepped closer and she felt the warmth of him despite the chilled air. “You could wear a paper bag and threaten to bring a male to his knees, and you know it.”
That wasn’t true—not any more. Even though her figure had filled out, Nesta always thought she looked a little too thin—the angles of her face cutting and sharp rather than gentle.
The thought spiked a bitterness in her and she knew without looking in the reflection of Cassian’s eyes that her irises had become chips of ice. “My knee certainly can,” she countered coldly.
A memory played between them—of Cassian’s lips on her neck and her knee connecting between his legs—and for a moment, Nesta didn’t know what Cassian would do or say next. They remained in suspended limbo, two drumming heartbeats the only sound, until mirth kindled across Cassian’s expression.
His laugh was a booming rumble that was caught and brushed into something softer and more intimate—just for her—as he stepped even closer. “It certainly can. I’m not sure my pride has recovered.”
“I’m sure it hasn’t,” Nesta replied, her voice fashioned and distant. “Your wings barely fit through the window.”
A low growl was pulled from Cassian’s throat. It wasn’t threatening, but… excited. As if he relished in playing this game with her—this tussle of control. “Did you watch me fly away, sweetheart?”
Strike, parry, strike.
A cold, short laugh. “Why would I have bothered?”
Cassian grinned widely, his teeth flashing as he gestured to himself with large hands.“Why wouldn’t you bother, Nes? Look at me.”
And despite herself, Nesta huffed a breath of amusement.
Triumph lit up Cassian’s expression, but rather than gloat he tugged at a stray strand of her hair. It was meant as a teasing gesture but it morphed into something else as he clung on, their proximity altering the tempo.
The warmth of him thawed her limbs and the scent of him was heady as she breathed him in.
“I was talking about your hair,” he murmured hoarsely as he stared down at her. The cocky facade he had worn whilst they bantered whispered away on the soft, winter breeze filtering through the sweeping front drive. To Nesta’s surprise, Cassian’s throat bobbed. “It’s different from your usual…”
He trailed off and made a circling gesture around his head.
“Oh,” Nesta replied faintly, too taken aback to laugh at the movement. She’d forgotten to braid her hair into its usual coronet—a habit, really. She’d dressed in a rush after training and it hadn’t even occurred to her to wind it into her usual armour. Instead, it was loosely plaited to drape over her right shoulder. “I forgot to re-braid it.”
“It’s nice,” Cassian assured Nesta, but his eyes darted to the exposed stretch of skin on the left of her neck. The air around them grew thicker—scented of pine and musk—and heat drummed through Nesta’s blood—the scent a siren call. A vision struck her of Cassian’s canines sinking into her skin.
His tongue darted out to wet his lips and her body groaned at the sight.
“Not for you,” Nesta clipped sharply.
Cassian’s eyes flicked up to her in surprise, his dilated pupils narrowing slightly, as if her words had shut something down.
“My neck,” she surmised with an abrupt snort. “Stop thinking about it.”
But she mentally shivered as his eyes fell to her neck again. Couldn’t help it. Couldn’t stop remembering how it had felt as his teeth grazed his teeth over her pulse. How he had sucked it into his mouth, as if he were trying to drink the very life of her until they were one beating heart—her life fluttering completely at his mercy.
“Only if you do,” Cassian vowed hoarsely. He stepped even closer… until his torso brushed against hers. A predatory focus narrowed his movements wholly towards her. He raised a hand to her neck and slowly—torturously—drew a path with a calloused thumb down the curve, from behind the shell of her ear all the way down to her collarbone. “Have you been thinking about it? About my lips on your neck?”
Breath hitched in Nesta’s throat, a fist closing around her windpipe. But she wouldn’t let him win, not now.
“Have you been thinking about my hand on your cock?” Nesta rallied back.
Cassian actually growled. A hand gripped at her hip, tugging her closer to him, until her curves were lined up firmly with the hard muscles of his torso and hips. She felt the hard length of him pressing against her—the rough exhale of his breath against her neck at the fleeting sweet release of tension. “What do you think?”
“I think you’re going to struggle to get through this lunch,” Nesta supplied crispy. She pushed away from him, her hands briefly splaying against his firm chest.
Cassian remained as still as a statue, his beautiful wings half-extended and held high, the apex of their glorious peaks above his head. Only his hair moved in the breeze, as if it were wild and independent from the rest of his body. His eyes remained focused on her with dead intent and Nesta knew in this moment, that nothing would drag his attention from her.
“Remember,” Nesta crooned as she began to head towards the house. She glanced over her shoulder and stared up at him through her lashes with a sultry smile. “You can fuck me wherever you like in the bungalow, Cassian.”
***
The river house had too many staircases. That was Nesta’s first thought as she climbed the final steps that led to the third floor landing.
Lunch at Feyre and Rhys’s had been a casual affair. Food had been laid out on platters and in steaming serving dishes on the dining room table, but everyone had chosen to remain near the silver-wreathed fire in the living room, a plate balanced on their laps.
Nesta found it was her preferred way of dining. She had been raised from birth to eat in front of company with silverware, pressed linen napkins and impeccable manners. But eating lunch in an inviting armchair was the exact opposite of how Nesta had been groomed to find herself a husband, and Nesta revelled in the fact that her mother was most likely turning in her grave. Understood in that moment that she was perhaps a little rebellious like Feyre after all. That the Night Court might offer her opportunities to figure out who she actually was when she stripped off the layers of conditioning and bitterness: a wolf rid of its pelt.
Murmured conversation and laughter wrapped around the walls of the living room. And for once Nesta was encompassed in it. She was by no means free of her many layered masks but she had smiled slyly as Amren detailed her extensive plans to tie Varian to his bedroom during her visit to the Summer Court in a few days. Had listened as Elain detailed her latest plans for one of the city’s garden squares. Had watched out of the corner of her eye as Cassian laughed with Mor.
As usual, there had been a roguish grin on Cassian’s face as he poked fun of his friend, but Nesta felt no stab of jealousy. Bizarrely that emotion had bled away since she had decided to take Cassian at his word. When she had started believing rather than doubting him, even if it didn’t always come naturally.
It helped that Mor was not one to shield her emotions. Nesta suspected the female was powerful enough that she simply did not care, and aside from the lingering, sad glances she cast at the Shadowsinger when she thought nobody was looking, there was nothing beneath the simple affection she felt for Cassian and the rest of her family.
So, Nesta had contentedly sipped the chai tea Cassian had fetched her from the kitchen. And when Feyre disappeared upstairs, Nesta had slipped out of the room and followed her sister all the way to her art studio.
That was where the many, many stairs had come in.
Nesta’s first thought upon entering Feyre’s art studio was that it was full of light. So much so that if Azriel were to step through the door, Nesta was certain it would banish his shadows more effectively than when he spoke with Elain.
To Nesta’s left, two large portrait windows graced the wall, which looked out onto the extensive gardens and the snaking river beyond it. Paint splattered trestle tables adorned the space with no seeming logic, to the point that Nesta suspected they were moved around depending on the position of the sun.
Adjustable easels, wooden stools, paint tubes and palettes were for the most part stacked away, but there was still a well-suited creative mess to the space, as if it could never quite be tidy. And propped up against the white walls—some empty and some full of brush strokes and paint—were dozens of paintings.
The room scented much like Feyre’s art studio in the rainbow—of turpentine and surging emotion—but more personal and less somber, as if this private space was used for things that brought Feyre joy.
“Feyre.”
Her sister’s head turned sharply to the right at the sound of her name, her braid slipping back over her shoulder and down her back.
Feyre’s eyes were wide as she held a tattooed hand to her heart and took in a slow, steadying breath. “I didn’t notice you following me.”
“Cassian,” Nesta supplied simply.
“Ah,” Feyre responded. A small smile flicked up at the ends of her mouth. “Learning to track someone was one of my first lessons. Thank the Cauldron he’s not here, he would be reprimanding me for not having read the signs.”
Nesta tried not to stiffen at the mention of the Cauldron but failed. Feyre clocked it, her eyes softening, so Nesta fizzed out a breath.
It was a poor distraction to pull her sister’s focus away from discussing the one thing Nesta did not like to mention.
“You still wouldn’t have noticed,” Nesta said.
Feyre cocked her head slightly as if Nesta was a puzzle to figure out. It was the way Cassian often looked at her—a soul-searching gaze. And perhaps her sister was finally learning to tell the difference between Nesta’s barbed retorts and curt honesty, because Feyre just admitted slowly, “No, I don’t think I would have.”
Other, an ancient voice hissed in Nesta’s ear, before it tapered into a moan. Nesta, Nesta, Nesta.
White and silver gushed through Nesta’s veins, clambering and twisting and turning, spiralling like a dolphin in water. Not scared but… excited.
Nesta willed quiet into her veins, and although silver must have wiped over Nesta’s irises, Feyre did not flinch. Did not indicate that the enormity of Nesta’s power overwhelmed her. Only jerked her chin to a large landscape canvas that was clamped to an easel.
“I was just checking on a painting I left to dry,” Feyre explained as Nesta looked to the canvas. “I want to varnish it but I’m trying out a new paint. It’s supposed to be even more durable than the oil paint I use, but the drying time is longer. It’s—“
Feyre stopped abruptly. And to Nesta’s dismay, her sister flushed. “I’m probably boring you,” she said quickly. Shook her head. “I was just checking on it,” Feyre summarised.
Nesta’s response was frank and void of unnecessary intonation. She wasn’t one to decorate her speech. “I don’t find it boring. What does the varnish do?”
A blink was the only indication that Feyre had expected Nesta to shut the conversation down. It hurt, but Nesta tried to banish the feeling. Fortified her resolve to show that she could be different.
“It preserves the painting,” Feyre explained. “Protects it from dirt and dust.” Her sister walked over to the sink and rolled up her sleeves to reveal pale skin and ink. “It also gives the painting a nice glossy finish. Or a matt finish, actually. It depends on what effect you’re after.”
Absent-mindedly, Feyre began to rinse a brush under the tap, but her focus remained on the painting—of the garden scene she had rendered so expertly onto canvas. “When I was in Spring I thought I had the most beautiful view,” she admitted, “but the longer I stayed there, everything became twisted and wrong. I suppose I began to see all of the weeds and thorns. But this garden… I can take joy in nature again. Elain has done a good job.”
Nesta considered leaning back against a long dry paint splattered table but thought better of it. Didn’t really know what to say as they tiptoed around Feyre’s trauma. So, she only stated simply, “Elain has always been good at nurturing a space until it blossoms into something beautiful.”
Elain had shown Nesta around the gardens the day before, including the squares Rhys had assigned to her. Elain was working beneath the head gardener of the city—a blonde-haired male Elain had sweetly introduced Nesta to.
From the way the male had gazed a little too long at Elain, Nesta knew that her sister had unwittingly enchanted another male with the purity of her heart.
Nesta wondered if Azriel knew. She had observed the Shadowsinger when nobody else was looking: the way his shadows retreated slightly when Elain spoke. The way he fastidiously asked Elain questions and enquired after her health when others forgot she was in a room. Elain was sweet, gentle and kind. It meant people had a tendency to see her sister as timid, but Nesta had always thought Elain just needed to be coaxed out of her shell. That there was stubborn, iron-determination and dedication beneath her soft exterior, when her sister grew the courage to unsheathe her claws.
Feyre nodded in surprise. Opened her mouth to say something, but Nesta wanted to get in first. Didn’t want to deflect from her sister’s olive branch—the mention of her own ghosts.
Nesta used to hate when everyone would compare Feyre’s hardships to her own. It had only served to remind Nesta of where she had failed.
But Nesta was facing her past, not running from it. So, she said, “It must be nice to enjoy the garden again.”
Feyre’s expression unspooled. “Thank you. The Night Court is… different to Spring, but I think it’s even more beautiful.”
Nesta thought of her sister’s ex-fiance. Reigned in a dismissive snort. “I haven’t been to Spring, but I imagine it tamed and manicured to the point of being superficial.”
A delighted surprise of laughter left Feyre at the frost coating Nesta’s words. She turned off the tap at the sink and began to dry her hands with a rag that had seen better days.
Once she was finished, Feyre leant her willowy frame against the porcelain sink and wrapped the rag around the bristles of the paintbrush, coaxing out the excess water. Her sister hadn’t dressed for lunch and was still wearing the dark leggings and oversized jumper she had no doubt been painting in that morning.
“That’s a very apt description,” Feyre explained when Nesta raised an imploring eyebrow. “Actually,” her sister muttered, her smile falling away, “I couldn’t have described it better myself. You’ve always been good with words.”
Words were Nesta’s arsenal of weapons. They could be manipulated to injure and impale as well as any sword. But they could also correct mistakes and strike an apology.
Feyre might be an artist who rendered images onto canvas, but Nesta captured the world and the human condition in words.
“It seems we finally agree on something.”
For a moment, Feyre stared at Nesta, as if she was weighing up whether her next words would strike peace or war.
In the end, Feyre said slowly—casually, “I actually think you and I agree on more than we realise, even beyond Elain.”
When Nesta said nothing, Feyre looked down at the paintbrush in her hands. Absent-mindedly began to play with the bristles—a nervous gesture that signalled a course in the conversation that the old Nesta would have cut down immediately.
“Do you ever wonder whether we might have had more in common if we had both been born to different parents and had different upbringings?”
The question sent a stab of something through Nesta. It was followed with prickling anger that pierced like millions of tiny needles as they clambered down her spine. But it wasn’t at her sister.
Nesta’s expression hardened until it was gathered taut. “You mean if I hadn’t been born and raised by mother to be sold to the highest bidder and you hadn’t been neglected?”
Feyre’s face wrinkled but there was a steadfast determination set in her jaw. She lifted her chin. “Yes. If things had been different, we might have got on more—understood one another. Perhaps we wouldn’t have been such opposing forces. You always got on with Elain, but not me. I always wondered if we had been raised differently whether things might have been better between us.”
Nesta thought of how she had failed Feyre but how Elain had still been hers to guard and protect. Elain had been too innocent—easy prey in a den of wolves.
But Nesta didn’t explain that. Instead, she announced brusquely, “You and I got on better when you were young.”
Feyre cocked her head. “I don’t remember that.”
Nesta had known her sister hadn’t remembered it. Feyre had been too young to retain that sort of information. So she pulled a book from her bag—the book she had retrieved from her dingy apartment a few days before—and extended it to her sister.
Surprise flashed across Feyre’s expression. “What’s this?”
The shrug Nesta loosed was too indifferent, but it was too late for her too correct it. “A book,” she supplied unhelpfully.
Feyre’s lips twitched but her eyes swam with a different emotion. When she spoke, her voice was a little rough. “I can see that.”
“It’s a book of fairytales. I used to read to you when you were small. It’s a...” Nesta trailed off. Rolled back her shoulders. Made her spine straighter. “It’s a piece of our history that’s not complicated. I wanted you to have it.”
A beat of silence followed. Feyre blinked a few times, as if something was caught in her eye. “Thank you,” she whispered. She ran a hand tenderly over the worn front cover, as if she understood how precious it was to Nesta. “I recognise this—you had this at the cottage…”
Feyre trailed off, but Nesta felt the burning question at the tip of her sister’s tongue. But Feyre didn’t release it. Instead, she fell quiet, her brain no doubt working overdrive as she wondered how Nesta had been reunited with a piece of their history.
It had been a favour Nesta had asked of Cassian when she was still reeling from becoming fae. When Nesta had spent every waking moment worried that Elain would end her life, and every second in her sleep replaying those few seconds of memory; of when Cassian had tried and failed to crawl towards her, his wings tattered and bleeding.
But Cassian’s wings had slowly healed. He’d visited her every day, his presence the only thing grounding her even as they threw insults at one another until he inevitably left her alone. But that day Cassian had listened to Nesta’s request without a taunting word. Had turned on the spot and dove off the balcony and into the sky. Had returned later that night, his entire expression void of his usual playfulness as he pressed the book into her hands—as if he knew how precious it was to her.
Yet… the request had given Cassian license to start dictating how Nesta might live her new life when she was too busy mourning her old one. He’d immediately encouraged her to go out into the city—fresh air would do her good, he had told her—as if the favour he’d granted her meant that she would finally give in and embrace the awful life that a Cauldron had dealt to her.
The two of them had ended on a bad note: Nesta had stood at the window of the library with the book clutched to her chest and watched him fly away. Knew then that even though he made her want to shatter things, that Cassian was something significant—a shift in her life that ran well beyond the Cauldron and her role in the War.
Feyre looked expectantly at Nesta and Nesta nodded. Took the book back from her sister. She didn’t want to think about she and Cassian before Illyria. Of how she had wounded him so deeply but he had weathered it all. Not because he was soft, but because he couldn’t stay away.
“The tale of the Albern and the Princess Who Never Laughed used to be your favourite story,” Nesta told Feyre. She flipped to the correct page and pressed her finger to the paper. “This one here.”
“I recognise it,” Feyre announced with surprise after a few seconds pause. She squinted in concentration, accessing a memory from long ago. “There was a golden goose and… a growing chain of people. They became stuck.”
“That’s right,” Nesta agreed, the frost in her voice falling away. “Because an innkeeper plucked a feather when Albern wasn’t looking. You always wanted to join the procession.”
Feyre snorted in a way that sounded so like Nesta that when she smiled sheepishly in apology, Nesta only exhaled her own amusement. “I can’t say I’m surprised.”
Nesta closed the book. Held it out to her sister again.
For a while, Feyre flicked through the pages, reading the titles of each story, until Nesta broke the silence. “I should have known you couldn’t read.”
Her sister was too absorbed to look up. “It wasn’t your duty to remember,” she assured Nesta faintly.
As if sensing the conversation was not over, Feyre closed the book. “Father was our guardian, Nesta, not you. The duty fell on him.”
“It was my duty to remember,” Nesta countered firmly. There was a sharp quality to her voice that made Feyre’s head snap up. “Don’t say that my negligence was acceptable when it wasn't. We all knew father was failing in his role as provider of the house. I was the eldest. I should have stepped up.”
Feyre’s eyes widened with a shock so stark it was almost as if Nesta had slapped her.
Surprise speared through Nesta’s gut, but she ignored it. Raised her chin and looked squarely at her sister. “I take responsibility for not looking after you when we were starving. I should have stepped up but I didn’t know how.”
Nesta looked away, unable to weather Feyre’s gaze. Swallowed. Balled her hands into fists and squeezed—until her nails cut into her skin. The pain grounded her. Allowed her to finally admit out loud what she had kept secret for all of these years. “I wanted father to fight for us. I thought if he saw us starve he’d do something. And then when he didn’t do that, I wanted to starve just to spite him. I wanted him to live and die with the knowledge that he killed his daughters and I wanted him to rot for it.”
There was a wrathful fire to Nesta’s admission but Feyre’s surprise had fallen away into an expression that Nesta could only describe as understanding.
“I know,” Feyre admitted aloud. “I know that. And you did try to help us, Nesta—with Tomas.”
Just Feyre saying his name aloud sent a flash of panic through Nesta. Invisible hands gripped and tore at her clothing. Nails raked down her back. Her skin stung.
Nesta tried to focus on the present. On the light in the room. On the frank and open conversation that needed to be had rather than the memory of Tomas’s heavy breathing as he fumbled with the ties of his trousers.
Back in that gloomy, dank cottage, Nesta and Feyre had fought over Tomas. Feyre hadn’t seemed to piece together that Nesta was trying to lighten Feyre’s burden, but somewhere along the way her sister had finally understood. Had Cassian pointed it out to her? Had Elain? Or was it of Feyre’s own volition when she’d seen into Nesta’s memory and witnessed just how terrified Nesta was of being attacked from behind that day at the cave? It was the sort of terror that couldn’t be born from anything but experience.
“That wasn’t brave,” Nesta replied shortly, but she couldn’t meet her sister’s eyes. “It wasn’t facing the woods and what lurked in it day after day.”
In a few strides, Feyre closed the distance between them. She set down the book on the table and reached for Nesta’s hands.
Feyre’s palms were dry like Mas’s. It was no doubt a consequence of scrubbing paint from her skin, but the touch was grounding.
Nesta looked up. Allowed Feyre to search her steel blue eyes without flinching.
“I thought you were being ignorant of what Tomas was, but you knew, didn’t you?” Feyre asked quietly. “You were going to tie yourself to someone abusive just so I had one less mouth to feed.”
Nesta’s expression hardened. She considered floating away but only reset her posture until she was regal and formidable. Not for the first time, Nesta wished she could simply say yes, I tried to help, but the words froze in her throat.
In the end, she managed to force out, “It was all I could do.”
Feyre squeezed Nesta’s fingers. Shook her head slightly, as if the world had tilted on its axis and now granted a different view. Nesta wondered how often Feyre self-analysed their life from before, when everything had been leached of light and hope. “I’m glad I found the wolf in the woods, Nesta. I’m glad it fed us and that it led me beyond the wall, despite all of the hardship. But I am sorry that it made you fae. What happened to you and Elain—I will never forgive myself for it.”
Nesta thought of the males who had snatched her from her bed in nothing but her nightgown. The memory of the King of Hybern’s cruel face, the Cauldron’s icy depth and that ethereal voice. That bead of light that sank into the meat of her palm. The quiet of the stars and the scrape of rock against her skin as she had scrabbled to her feet and turned her face to the night sky.
Nesta flexed one of the curled hands at her side, feeling that pearlescent light—the existence of it. Her power was multifaceted: one side of it burned and the other side sung. It made her strong and resilient. Powerful.
As a human, Nesta had been weak and defenceless—useless, really. And knowing what she could be now… would Nesta really choose to go back to her old body if she had the chance? Could she truly turn her back on this new way of life?
Cassian had asked her about it once. At the time, Nesta hadn’t hesitated to tell him that she wanted to be human again. But what did Nesta truly have in her old life? In Prythian there was freedom and choice and possibility. She could make a difference. Could carve a path for a version of herself that was not full of hatred.
So, whilst her body might be different and odd, Nesta wouldn’t trade her power and the good she could do with it. After all, a human life wasn’t nearly long enough to do everything you set out to accomplish.
Clarity was suddenly crystal clear—a fog lifted in Nesta’s mind.
“I forgive you for it,” Nesta told Feyre abruptly. She levelled her sister with a stare that shone with a sincerity Nesta hadn’t known existed inside of her until that very moment. “I forgive you for all of it.”
Surprise speared through Nesta, the surge of it so fierce that it seeped over her half-built wall and into her bones. It scented of pear and lilac. It was coupled with a sense of overwhelming relief and it threatened to crumple Nesta’s spine—that unwavering pillar of strength.
There was a long silence of simmering disbelief and then something washed out of Feyre on a breath: stark relief and the bubble of joy that came with it in the form of tears.
“And I forgive you,” Feyre said softly, as if she knew Nesta needed to hear those words again. Tears continued to well in the corners of sister’s eyes, but Feyre paid them no heed. Squeezed Nesta’s fingers as one ran down her cheek. Asked, “I want to show you something, Nesta. Will you come with me?”
Nesta studied the sincerity across her sister’s features and stiffly dipped her chin.
Feyre led Nesta by the hand up another flight of stairs, until they were on the top floor of the house.
Together, they walked across the open landing towards a closed oak door.
Her sister plucked a key from her pocket and turned it in the lock.
The door creaked softly and warmth spilled over their skin as it escaped beyond the wood.
Together they stepped over the threshold to find… books. Hundreds of them stacked into the many bookshelves that had been built into the walls; their spines a variety of colours—reds, greens, yellows, browns, blues and the glitter of gold lettering.
To Nesta’s left, interspersed between the bookshelves, were huge floor-to-ceiling windows, divided by muntins into square pieces of glass that showcased the beautiful garden below.
But it was to the left that pulled at Nesta’s attention; where a curved oak staircase with bronze intricate railing swept like the tail of a snake before it straightened to caress the inner wall of the house. It climbed up to what looked like a mezzanine, where Nesta spied the foot of a large bed and the pelt of a fur rug.
Something overtook Nesta and that crafted mask she always wore cracked and withered away until it was nothing but floating dust particles that hung in the air. She floated into the space, her fingers already itching to run over the spines. The room smelt elemental—of old vanilla, woodsmoke and freshly turned earth. Of the fresh promise of snow in the air, which filtered through one of the propped open halves of the arched windows. Nesta almost expected pine to drift in on the breeze, as if Illyria waited outside rather than Velaris.
The room smelt homely. Of wilderness and comfort. Perfect, really.
Without a word, Feyre gently tugged at Nesta’s hand, coaxing her to a snug reading space that sat beneath the mezzanine.
A velvet green couch the colour of The Steppes faced a cosy looking fireplace. And above the hearth… Nesta swallowed. A painting of her: a sword of fire in one hand and white healing light glowing from the soul of her other palm. Her magic illuminated the fierce determination on Nesta’s face—the eyes that smoked silver. At her side, Sala was leaping, her muscles rippling, her tail of flame pointing with intent at a victim beyond the frame. And on Nesta’s other side was Feyre, her hair flying, her sword mid-stroke. Two sisters fighting side-by-side for the same purpose.
But it wasn’t simply a painting—it was Nesta. Who she truly was beneath the bitter, hostile rage that had consumed her before she had stripped herself bare. As if her sister had somehow captured Nesta’s very soul and rendered it true with canvas and paint. Had understood Nesta’s truth, accessing a moment and cataloguing history so it was remembered. It was a legacy and a beginning—a rebirth. Emotion swarmed from Nesta’s heart to her throat, lodging itself there, tears rising to the surface because somehow this was everything.
On each side of the hearth were more paintings. Of Nesta and Elain together at the top of the mountain, Nesta’s legs flung over the edge and Elain holding a blue snowdrop. Of Roksana tucked into the crook of Nesta’s arm as she taught her to read. Of Mas flying.
“Cassian lent me a few images from his memory,” Feyre confessed softly into Nesta’s ear. Feyre pointed to a gold frame. “This one with Roksana and Sala is my favourite.”
It took Nesta a moment to place the memory, but then she remembered. A tear finally spilled down her face but she did not brush it away. It was the first time Roksana had met Sala. Nesta was framing the youngling’s body from behind, her chin tucked atop the girl’s dark tangle of hair. Nesta was wearing a rare smile on her face. It softened her features, made her eyes burnished rather than sharp.
It had been moments before the youngling had squirmed out of Nesta’s grasp and buried her face in Sala’s ruff. Nesta remembered how they had all laughed. How Cassian’s deep rumble had vibrated through the room—the sound an underlying, accompanying sound to the a higher pitched melody—but Roksana had not flinched or scrambled to hide.
Nesta moved on to the paintings to the right of the hearth. She spied the white crumbling arches of Kamanam amidst the churning sea. There was the snow-capped mountain where Cassian had told Nesta about pareho: where a waterfall spilled down the staggered rocky staircase of the cliff face.
And then Nesta was staring at the last canvas. It was slightly smaller and didn’t use oil paint like the others. Nesta wanted to say that Feyre had used watercolour, but there was something more opaque to the colour… something more concrete. Yet, it still created the illusion of something soft and precious—peaceful: three sisters curled up together on a fur rug, exhaustion clear on their dirty faces even in sleep.
Is that what it had gotten to with her sisters, Nesta wondered? That they could only get along when they were absent from the world?
“I had this one in my own collection,” Feyre murmured from behind Nesta. “I think it’s the first time we all shared a bed without fighting for space.”
“That’s because Elain wasn’t dead,” Nesta stated simply.
“Yes,” Feyre admitted frankly. “Elain used to be the only common tie between you and I. It’s what made us work together even when we didn’t want to.”
Her sister was not wrong, but Nesta couldn’t find the words to agree. So, all she asked was, “And now?”
“Elain doesn’t need us to protect her and that tie between us is gone,” Feyre shrugged. She looked conflicted and… sad. “It’s nice to be able to live,” she admitted. “To not think about how we’re going to survive and how we’re going to ensure her safety. But if it wasn’t for my duties, I’d be a little… lost.”
And was ‘lost’ not exactly what Nesta had been? Floating with no purpose, drowning willingly in the ill omen of trauma because she had once again failed to protect and fight for what mattered.
“I understand,” Nesta responded before she could think too hard on it. Thought instead of how abandoned she had felt by Elain who chosen Feyre and left Nesta to struggle alone. How Elain had not fought for Nesta to be well, even after Nesta would have given everything for her sister’s safety, even if that had meant a life of abuse in the hands of Tomas Mandray.
In a way, Nesta had always been a guardian: a fearsome, fire-breathing dragon. Not a sister, but now… she could be, if she wanted.
Is that how Feyre felt? Always the parent and never the sibling?
“I know you are carving out your own life and I don’t begrudge you for that,” Feyre said, her voice pillowy and… apprehensive, as if she was worried how Nesta might react. “But I wanted you to know you will always have a room here if you need somewhere to stay. Or if you simply want to visit. You are always welcome.”
“And your mate?”
“Is stubbornly protective,” Feyre scowled. “But he has admitted his prejudices have been proved wrong. You will always be welcome here—by both of us. I can promise you that.”
Nesta thought of this morning. Of how Rhys had looked at her with respect rather than disdain.
They were both trying. Nesta supposed that was all that mattered.
“Elain and I thought you’d feel most at home surrounded by books,” Feyre continued. A sheepish smile graced her face. “I asked your friend Emerie for some recommendations, so I hope you like them.”
Nesta huffed a breath. She and the female Illyrian had become closer in recent weeks, always partnering up during training sessions at dawn. Emerie had a dry quick wit about her that complimented the thornier side of Nesta’s personality, but the two of them also bonded over books. It had not become unusual for Cassian to find Nesta in Emerie’s shop when dusk bled into the sky, sitting behind the counter with a steaming mug or chai as they discussed their latest read.
“Up the stairs is a bedroom,” Feyre added, waving a slim hand to the curved staircase that climbed to the mezzanine platform built into the roof. When Nesta looked up, she spied thick oak rafters and endless windows. “It has an amazing view of the Sidra,” Feyre confessed. “I had the windows enchanted so they will block out the light when you sleep.”
Nesta wondered who had told Feyre that she loved a good view. Perhaps her sister had studied her, or maybe Cassian had mentioned their night time excursions.
Fingers caught at hers and Nesta turned to find Feyre’s eyes shining with… worry. Her sister caught her lip between her teeth. Gnawed on it nervously before she released it.
“Do you like it?”
“I—“ Nesta started. Because this room was… perfect. It had been tailored for her even when Nesta had expressly pushed her sisters away. Nesta swallowed back the lump in her throat, but her voice was rough as she said, “It’s lovely.”
She turned back to the painting of her and Feyre above the hearth. Stared and stared at the person she had become—the girl she had forged anew from rage, remorse, trauma and introspection.
Nesta had been a troubled, bitter human who had been turned against her will into an even more vengeful fae. Yet… Nesta had fought. She had bled and screamed as she clawed at oil slick waters and grabbed handfuls of power. She had made decisions to do things that were wholly good. Had allowed silver to become white as she knitted back tendons and sinew. Had saved lives and punished those who deserved vengeance.
Blindly, Nesta reached for Feyre’s spare hand. Squeezed it hard. And finally facing who she had been to her sisters, and who she was now, allowed that leash on her tears to truly fall away.
A sound came from behind them—slippered footsteps—and a few moments later, Elain rushed into the room in a breeze of jasmine and honey.
“Oh, you are here,” she exclaimed. Her cheeks were flushed pink from climbing the steep stairs. “Cassian says it’s time to go—”
She broke off as she studied Nesta’s wet face. Then Feyre’s. “Do you like it?” Elain asked softly. “We tried to get it right—”
“I do,” Nesta assured Elain. She let go of one of Feyre’s hands and reached for Elain’s instead. Elain grasped onto Nesta. Took Feyre’s other hand until they were all linked together; bound by blood and duty but also with love.
“I do like it,” Nesta repeated. Looked pointedly into her sisters eyes so they saw the sincerity shining there. “Thank you.”
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duskandstarlight · 2 months ago
Text
Embers & Light (Chapter Thirty Six)
Notes: Your latest update of E&L is here. I hope you enjoy it--I know a lot of you are anxious after the teaser. 
I really loved writing this chapter. It tugged at my heartstrings and had me sobbing onto my keyboard. I hope it resonates with you all, too. I’ve had this planned for a very, very long time. 
As usual, please reblog or comment if you enjoy my writing. I love hearing from you--it makes all the time (which is a lot of time, haha) I spend writing DOUBLY worth it <3
Let me know if you want to be tagged/untagged...
Also, I’m sorry for any typos. I can’t look at it any more!
Chapter Thirty-Six Cassian
Cassian had submerged himself into a cold bath the moment he got back to his room.
For a split second, it had smoothed over the throbbing of his blood, his skin, his very self, until that need was roaring again; an unquenchable, raging fire.
As if the House knew what he was suffering, it had unceremoniously dumped ice chips into the bath—it seemed the only fae the House treated nicely was Nesta. Cassian had growled his thanks before he’d warned told the House to scarper. Somehow, despite the burning, bone-numbing water, Cassian had brought himself to completion over and over again, until he felt less feral and more fae—composed. Even if it was a constant, relentless battle.
That tie that held he and Nesta together wouldn’t rest until they were bonded, Cassian knew that. Knew he’d be suffering for the rest of his life, given Nesta’s unwavering, understandable hatred towards anything Cauldron given.
Which Cassian did understand, but it didn’t mean it wasn’t hard for him to maintain control on that territorial part of him that clambered to seek Nesta out anyway. To see if he could persuade her to stay.
But Nesta wanted to see her sisters. Wanted to try with them and Cassian wouldn’t take that away from her, despite his joking earlier.
Yet, that unfulfilled desire was still there—barely contained, pushed back just enough that he could focus on the present with the entirety of his will power. When the sun had long bleed into dusk and Cassian was shivering from the cold, he had hauled himself out of the bath. Dress. Got himself to the restaurant; where he was now waiting impatiently with most of his friends and family for Nesta to show.
And all the time he waited, a growing sense of doom blossomed in the pit of Cassian’s stomach. It felt like a flower unfurling its petals, the sensation only intensifying the more the minutes passed. But still Cassian did not catch sight of Nesta amongst the crowds of fae walking along the river—towards the heart of the city, where the annual fire procession took place.
He drummed his fingers hard against the surface of the table; a patternless tune, a dull thunk that grew in pace, mimicking the beating of his heart. A flicker of something flared down the twisted rope that Cassian barely dared to acknowledge half of the time, given that it was usually clamped tightly shut at the other end.
But that sensation was panic; a silver metallic tang that closed around Cassian’s throat like an imaginary fist. It made it hard to breathe. To think.
Something was wrong. Cassian knew it in his bones.
But he didn’t get up. Knew that if he went to investigate as he’d done the day before, he would be betraying Nesta’s trust and belittling her freedom.
When Nesta hadn’t shown at the House earlier that evening, Cassian had flown down to the estate by the river. He had been sure she’d still be with Elain, but she hadn’t, and Mor had only taken it upon herself to inform him moments before they left—as if it wasn’t an issue at all—that Nesta had told her she had some business in the city and would meet them at the restaurant.
Neither Elain or Mor had thought to remind Nesta about the procession. It probably hadn’t even crossed their minds that it could be an issue. Unlike him, they had not seen Nesta deep in battle trauma. They had not seen her expel her power when she was
terrified or watched her struggle to breathe when it all became too much.
And that was not entirely their fault. For the most part, especially recently, they had only witnessed or heard of Nesta being strong. But despite the Illyrian widows calling Nesta a Goddess, she was just a fae who had her own demons to deal with. Cassian wished others would remember that. Wished they would see beneath the composed mask of Nesta’s surface and truly understand what she faced underneath.
It was easy to forget that a path was not free of bumps and set backs. That just because Nesta had been forging ahead recently and clearing the brambles, it did not mean that she could get cut by thorns.
Cassian continued to thump a finger nervously onto the table; the thunk of the wood hollow and ominous.
Nobody commented. Everyone at the table could read him like a book. It was his downfall, Cassian knew that; the way he wore his heart on his sleeve so obviously when it came to Nesta. But Cassian had been denied love in the early years of his life and he couldn’t help his inability to so blatantly crave what he’d always thought he would not be granted.
The same extended to the mating bond: whilst it was a curse for Nesta, it was a blessing to Cassian. A sign from the Cauldron, the Gods, the Mother—Cassian didn’t care which—that he was worthy of something great. That he had been granted an equal who made the magic inside of him sing and soar—elated at finally having a companion to his yearning heart.
Conversation swilled around the table, forcibly casual. Nobody berated Cassian for the tapping, although Mor was throwing him enough concerned glances that he knew she’d cave eventually. Whether it was because his friends and family knew better or because they sympathised, Cassian wasn’t sure. Instead, they let him internally panic and attempt to feign an aura of calm, whilst his emotions churned like a choppy sea inside of him.
After they had been sitting beneath the restaurants canopy for over thirty minutes, Mor finally broke.
“Drink Cass,” she urged airily, but her honey brown eyes were shadowed with concern. She made a deliberate point of topping up his wine glass until it was full to the brim of burgundy liquid.
The corners of her mouth tipped upwards into a half-hearted smile that seemed a little sad. “Consider it a liquid starter to keep us going before everyone arrives. They’re probably held up by the festival traffic. The streets are crowded.”
It was true that the streets were more alive than usual. Even Amren had not yet arrived with Varian and she was usually a stickler for punctuality. But it was the busy streets that had Cassian worried. Wherever Nesta was, she’d be pressed against the crowds by now—a writhing storm of emotion and overwhelming noise that Nesta struggled with on the best of days. And whilst Nesta had been working hard with Azriel to fortify her empath shields, Cassian knew that if something took her by surprise, her battle trauma could sweep in and consume her.
Cassian suspected he could only thank Oya and all of the Gods combined that silver fire had not yet blazed across the sky. That he had not yet been privy to imaginable panic lancing down that plaited tether with such ferocity that he forgot his vow to stay put and launched himself into the sky.
He could find her, Cassian knew that. He was always able to find Nesta in times of need, as if a compass was built into his blood that would always point him towards her.
Feyre met Cassian’s eyes over the table. She leant over, lowering her voice. Her hair was down tonight and it fell over her shoulder in a golden sheen as the movement loosed it from a pointed ear. “Are you worried about the fire procession?”
Cassian continued to rap his fingers sharply on the wood: a sharp, anxious beat. “I thought I’d be flying Nesta down,” he admitted. “That she’d be far away from the crowds.”
Sarsa was one of Cassian’s favourite restaurants in the city. Like many of the eateries he and his friends liked to visit, the restaurant was tiny, only hosting a few rustic tables inside its four walls. But it was on the outside of the restaurant—on the wide marble pavement that hugged the river—that most diners sat. Long trestle tables stretched along the front of the establishment, and above them, tiny stringed faelights interwoven with ruscus and other greenery lined the wooden canopy.
The food was excellent but it was also situated at the south of the city, far away from the fire procession that overtook its heart in the early evening. The procession ran from West to East, and finished just before midnight, when the fire display from the sea would hail the new year. Here, just above the southern docks, the crowds would peter out in half an hour, leaving a quiet, relaxed setting free of spitting fire and the sounds of celebration.
There was a movement at the far head of the table, the sound of a scraping chair, and then Elain was walking past Azriel who had been sitting beside her, towards them. Her blush gown trimmed with subtle lace swishing as she walked and Cassian didn’t fail to notice how Azriel’s shadows stilled slightly, as if they were captivated.
Nobody could deny that Elain always looked lovely, but Elain was too timid and sweet for Cassian—her constitution too fragile for his wild, raging heart. But Nesta… she was the elements—untamed and unpredictable and vital. Thrilling, really.
The first time he’d beheld her in the Human Realm, he’d nearly fallen to his knees. She’d been a shock—this resuscitation to his ribcage, as if he had only been existing rather than living—and his knees had buckled. He’d been so furious about it that he’d snapped. Told Nesta exactly what he’d thought of her all the while he’d breathed in her scent and committed it to memory.
That was before Nesta had got her power. Before she’d called his name in the War and saved him from the Cauldron’s blast. He’d known for sure then, what they were. And it hadn’t surprised him in the least, because no other woman had ever threatened to bring Cassian down onto his knees.
“I’m worried about Nesta,” Elain announced in a hushed voice as she drew up beside Feyre. “What if she’s got caught up in the crowds? Or perhaps she’s lost her way. I didn’t think to warn her earlier—”
Cassian threw up his hands. The action was overly dramatic and his siphons flashed, reflecting the twinkling faelight overhead. Elain’s worry had unleashed his own panic. It rose in his throat—a thick, obstructive lump. “It’s good to know I have some company in my concern,” he said gruffly.
He could feel his temper rising—his irritation. His neck felt hot under the collar of his shirt but the sweat that broke out beneath his clothing was cold and clammy. Cassian tried to concentrate on the assurance that Nesta knew where the restaurant was; he had pointed it out to her during their amble through the city earlier that morning. But… Cassian didn’t know how familiar Nesta was with the southern part of the city. During her short period of living in Velaris, Nesta had spent most of her time in the eastern streets, where the taverns were seedy and the unsavoury company was plentiful.
Ignoring Cassian’s outburst, Feyre pressed Mor, “What exactly did Nesta say when you saw her?”
Frowning, Mor searched back into her memory. The action irritated Cassian. It couldn’t have been more than a few hours ago. Why was everything taking so damn long?
Mor raised one shoulder in a shrug, but her eyes were regretful as she glanced at Cassian. “Nesta said she was running late. That she had to pick something up but she’d try to hurry. That we should start eating without her, but that she knew where the restaurant was.”
“She’ll have Sala with her,” Azriel consoled Cassian from further down the table. Everyone else had fallen silent without Cassian realising it. “If Nesta is in trouble, she’ll fly her out of there.”
But Cassian’s brother’s words did nothing to ease his panic. Instead, icy water sluiced through him so suddenly that he couldn’t think or breathe above the roaring in his head. Because Nesta wouldn’t call for Sala. He’d ordered her not to take the manticore into town with her only a few days prior. And all because he’d been a panicked bastard who hadn’t wanted to give Nesta her independence lest she fall back into her old ways.
A string of swear words left his mouth.
“She won’t call Sala,” Cassian admitted roughly after he’d finally stopped cursing. He pressed his palms to his eyes in despair. He thought desperately of Sala. Wished the manticore would take Nesta up, up and away from it all. Knew that Nesta would already be safe if he’d have just swallowed his damn fear. “I told her not to take Sala into the city,” he confessed.
Feyre’s expression contorted—her calm facade breaking. “Why on earth would you have told her that?”
“Because I wanted to go with her,” Cassian snapped and then regretted it. Because it wasn’t Feyre’s fault he had been a dick. “Sorry,” he apologised quickly, rubbing his palms into his eyes again—harder this time. He tucked his wings in tight against his back—a reminder that he would not be launching into the air to track Nesta down. “I thought Sala might scare the pedestrians. I told Nesta it would be best to keep her in the skies rather than on the streets.”
“The fae of Velaris will have to adjust to Sala at some point,” Feyre replied, but her voice had softened slightly, as if she knew exactly why Cassian had lost his temper. “But Nesta can master the crowds. She’s proven over and over again how strong she is.”
Elain nodded. Said quietly, “Nesta’s not who she was four months ago.”
But Cassian was already turning to Azriel, whose shadows were curling thickly around his ears. “Get your shadows to look for her,” he ordered.
For a moment, Cassian could have sworn Azriel’s eyes flickered with something akin to wariness, but then the faint emotion evened out, revealing nothing but a blank expression. His broken nose from yesterday was completely healed and as usual, his face looked like it had been rendered perfectly from marble—classic, undeniably handsome yet cold. “She’s fine. She’s half a mile from here, but walking this way.”
Cassian’s fists clenched at his sides and the hand Mor rested on his arm did nothing to settle him. “You already went to check on her,” Cassian growled through gritted teeth. “And you just let us sit here and worry.”
“My shadows only just came back,” Azriel replied simply—distantly. The shadowsinger gave no indication that Cassian’s short temper affected him. It probably didn’t, given Azriel had mastered living with it for over five hundred years. “You are not the only one who cares for Nesta’s well-being.”
But… there, when his shadow danced away from his cheek, Cassian spied the faintest line of tension bracketing the Shadowsinger’s mouth. Was Azriel truly concerned for Nesta? He had to be, for him to have already sent his shadows to seek her out.
That was a breach of privacy Azriel usually wouldn’t adhere to—especially given Cassian’s undeniable connection to her. He knew they could all scent Nesta on him. Amren’s eyes had gleamed earlier when he’d met her in Rhys’s study; a slow, serpentine smile which had curved at her lips and those grey eyes had lit up with all of the words she wanted to say but hadn’t.
Perhaps Rhys had warned her not to. Usually it was only Rhys who could stop Amren from saying something she shouldn’t, and even then, she didn’t often listen.
“Rhys is on his way, too,’ Azriel told Feyre, tearing his dark hazel eyes from Cassian’s. “Amren and Varian are just rounding the corner now.”
But Cassian barely heard them above the noise in his head. Quickly, he calculated
how long it would take Nesta to arrive. Kept a mental hand closed around his side of the bond, ready to yank should he feel a blast of emotion that was comprised of full-blown terror. But nothing came. Instead, the emotion that wound its way down the tether was muted, dull and murky, as if Cassian was wading through water. It made it hard to dissect. Only once did Cassian catch a sensation that felt like overwhelming relief, before everything went quiet again.
So, when Cassian felt a keen tug he stood with such abruptness that his chair scraped against the marble cobbles.
Ten sets of eyes stared at him but he just threw down the napkin that had been settled across his lap onto the table.
“She’s coming, thank Oya,” he announced, and then, without looking back at his friends, Cassian left the table and plunged into the crowds.
***
Even though the fae swarming the streets had dwindled, it was still a battle for Cassian to  fight through the throng of people. Blindly, he crossed the first bridge he came to, which connected to another street branching off from the river.
For a moment, as Cassian reached the other side, he tasted his heart in his mouth, but then it was there again, that pull. Not a tug on that tether so much as he’d first thought, but an innate magnetism that made his magic rush through his veins, urging him towards what he knew to be Nesta.
It felt different in a way Cassian could not explain. Perhaps that was why the sensation had been so sudden seconds before.
Up ahead, the crowds began to part, like the helm of the boat sluicing through water. A manticore led the way for two other figures, her prowl tapered down so it was soft around the edges, her haunches swinging gently rather than in the tantalisingly menacing way Cassian had seen before when Sala was weighing up her prey.
It only took a few beats of Cassian’s hammering pulse for him to make out the curling ram horns that belonged to Erol. And beside him, Nesta looked… small, despite her straight back and the way she floated regally towards him, ignoring the stares and palpable awe of the pedestrians. She was still too far away—too unreachable—and unable to help himself, Cassian pulled gently.
Nothing happened. Those metallic eyes didn’t fly to his and their gaze didn’t snap into place. Desperate now, Cassian pushed a sensation to soothe down that shared, twisted rope, but it bounced off an impenetrable wall, as if Nesta had retreated wholly into her empath shields so as to stop her feeding off the crowds emotions.
Siphons winking to the beat of his hammering pulse, Cassian strode towards them. The crowds parted easily now but Cassian spread his wings, urging them to distance themselves even further, thinking only of how soon he could wrap them around Nesta and deem her truly safe.
Erol’s eyes grew wary as he spied Cassian and his outstretched wings, but he didn’t stop walking, not until they were at an arms length from him. There was a grim determination to him that was entirely male, but the glance he tossed at Nesta was stricken with concern.
It took barely a breath for Cassian to notice that Nesta’s eyes were sparking silver, like a roiling thunderstorm waiting to strike. Her fists were bundled at her sides and Cassian could scent her blood—knew that her nails had sliced through her skin as she used the pain to keep her grounded.
It was the metallic tang of salt that had Cassian taking a small step forwards. He swept his wings back, tucked them in tightly to his back in a soft rush of air.
Nesta’s fists slowly began to unfurl and Cassian jumped at the chance, knowing somehow she had sensed him.
“Nesta,” he murmured hoarsely, because he didn’t want to go ahead and reach for her—not when she could so easily be startled. The relief that filled his voice was not contained but full of stark feeling but he didn’t care. Would never care how exposed he made himself as long as she was all right.
“It’s just me,” he said softly, repeating the words he’d said to her before, back in The Steppes after the kerit attack.
Silver stormed in Nesta’s eyes like a terrified cloud—a swarm of bees. Her eyes finally snapped to his. They were like puddles of living moonlight, the eery power in them pressing and promising.
“Ok, sweetheart?” he rasped. Slowly, Cassian reached out a hand. Brushed her cheek with the backs of his fingers. For a moment, the intense cold of her skin took his breath away. Magic moved beneath his veins, whispering and uncoiling—stretching. He stilled warmth into his palms as he splayed a palm across her cheek, ran a palm over the arch of her cheekbone.
For a moment, Nesta didn’t move. But then she lifted a hand to grip his and that ancient, rippling power smoothed over until her irises warmed enough to reveal a hint of frosty blue.
“Can you breathe?” he said quietly, because even though her lungs weren’t rattling, her breath was shallow. He clasped her palm to his chest, right over his hammering heart, pleading with her to copy the slow rise and fall of his lungs as he began to moderate his breathing.
When Cassian was sure Nesta was slowing her breath, he turned to Erol. The male stilled—like a prey trapped by a predator—but he didn’t turn and run. Instead, he only stood his ground, shifting his hooves into a stance that told Cassian he wouldn’t be leaving until he knew Nesta was ok.
Erol crossed his arms firmly over his chest as if to solidify his point.
Respect wound through Cassian and such… gratitude. If Erol hadn’t been with Nesta, Cassian wasn’t sure what might have happened.
Curling a wing around Nesta’s shoulders, Cassian asked Erol, “You got caught in the crowds?”
Clearly braced for a fight, Erol blinked in surprise at the conversational tone of Cassian’s voice. The male shifted uncertainly on his hooves, as if he was still expecting Cassian to be hostile, but he dipped his chin. “By the time it was time for Nesta to leave my studio, the procession was already starting in the Western streets. I offered to walk her back. I tried to stick to the backstreets but the crowds were still thick enough to slow us down. I couldn’t avoid the procession by the Palace of Bone and Salt.”
Grim understanding set Cassian’s mouth into a thin line. No doubt that had been when Nesta’s eyes had started to glow, given her aversion to fire that was not her own. The main vein of the street that flanked the Palace would have been lined with spectators eager to see the travelling performers, which included fae practicing fire-breathing and swinging fireballs, that blazed and crackled with a heated roar that rose above the music and festivities.
From the way Erol was staring at Nesta’s eyes—at the silver whisper of magic that was still moving across her irises—Cassian could tell he hadn’t seen her fire before. He must have known about Nesta—about her Cauldron given power thanks to the War—but for Nesta to have kept it so well hidden for near on a year, especially from a male who she had spent a lot of her time, just showed how deep and layered her trauma had been.
Instinctively, Cassian raised a hand to cup the back of Nesta’s neck, wanting to coax her to his chest. But Nesta only swayed slightly before she returned upright and unnervingly still. Didn’t so much as blink.
In fact, Nesta didn’t appear to be tuned in to the conversation at all. Her face was so pale that Cassian thought she might vanish into nothing.
The worry that wound through him made him want to be sick, but he knew better than to direct her movements. Knew she needed the time to come back to herself—if she even wanted that.
“The manticore found us twenty minutes ago,” Erol added. “It was easy to part the crowds after that.”
There was a pause and then Erol’s gaze darted to the manticore. “She’s Nesta’s?” he asked Cassian quietly.
“She is,” Cassian confirmed with a dip of his chin. Gently, he ran a thumb over the soft, fine hairs at the nape of Nesta’s neck. Anything to stop himself from bringing her hand to his lips and instilling all of his relief that she was safe by pressing his mouth to her knuckles. “She was born from blood and sacrifice.”
Erol’s features drew tight. It was not a tense expression, but one of focus. Nesta clearly hadn’t divulged in depth about her life in Illyria—about how she had brought a widow back from the dead and become a beacon of hope for so many of females as she encouraged them to defend themselves.
As if Sala knew she was being discussed, she butted her head hard against Cassian’s legs. Cassian lay his spare hand on the top of the manticore’s head in thanks without looking down. He was going to buy the manticore the best game he could find from the butchers tomorrow—she deserved it.
“Sala is only deadly to those who pose a threat,” Cassian explained. “She won’t harm anyone here. She chose Nesta and they act for one another.”
Erol shook his head with what Cassian could only describe as proud disbelief; his large, curled ram horns somehow more prominent with the movement. “It shouldn’t surprise me that Nesta was gifted a manticore, but seeing one in the flesh…”
He trailed off, unable to finish his sentence, but Cassian understood. Manticores were rare creatures—so rare many thought them to be merely mythical.
There was no doubt that the whole of Velaris would soon be talking. It would seem Nesta and her manticore would now be a topic of conversation that extended well beyond Illyria.
“I didn’t summon her—”
Both Erol and Cassian’s heads snapped to Nesta. Her voice was hoarse and dry, but Erol’s mention of Sala seemed to have cut through the trauma that had settled over her like a shroud.
The mother hen in Cassian was desperate to get her some water, but he made himself calm that urge in his veins, knowing that Nesta didn’t like a fuss.
“Perhaps you did it subconsciously,” Cassian told her.
But Nesta was frowning so deeply the arrows at the base of her nose appeared. “I didn’t even have time to think of her.”
Cassian didn’t understand how Sala had known to find Nesta without that thought. Frawley had made it very clear that Nesta had to will Sala to appear to spark the connection between them.
“Think of Nesta as a compass,” Frawley had told Cassian one evening at the cottage. “The connection between them is activated by thought, but that thought also pinpoints Nesta’s location so Sala can find her.”
Yet… Cassian also knew how far Nesta retreated into herself when her battle trauma struck. How she became consumed by it—the trigger activating the demons of the past until she could scarcely breathe.
So, all Cassian said was, “I’m glad she found you. I was being a prick about Sala. I wanted to fly you down yesterday.” The manticore rose onto her hind legs and climbed Cassian’s side with her paws. Butted her head gently against Cassian’s as if she was forgiving him, too. “You’re a good girl,” he told the manticore softly, ruffling her ears.
Then, he turned to Erol, knowing suddenly what he needed to do. That he needed to extend a hand out to this male because he could never thank him enough for keeping Nesta safe. “We are celebrating Hogmanay up at the House of Wind later. Please, come and celebrate with us. The view of the harbour is second to none.”
Surprise and apprehension flitted across Erol’s expression and… shame. “I am not sure I am the right calibre for the palace in the mountain and the company you hold,” he said stiffly.
Cassian huffed a derogatory snort as he thought of he and Az—how they were the lowest born faeries. “I’m an Illyrian bastard, you can’t get a lower calibre than me.”
But Erol’s expression remained cloudy. “We don’t have… airs,” Cassian continued. “There will be plenty of whisky. Cards, too—and music.”
The musician had been a last minute addition. Cassian had asked Rhys to source someone as a birthday present, knowing that Nesta would appreciate it. Just the thought of Nesta’s shining eyes as she listened to the music had been enough for Cassian to weather the knowing look Rhys had pinned him with.
But in the end, Rhys had only nodded and told Cassian to consider it done.
Having a brother as a High Lord meant finding a last minute musician on Hogmanay was easy.
“Any friend of Nesta’s is a friend of mine and my family’s,” Cassian assured Erol with a bow of his head. “You are more than welcome to join us, but I understand if you would rather stay down here for the festivities.”
Something dark flitted across Erol’s features. He studied Nesta, who was still looking as if she was half there, before his gaze seemed to turn inward. Cassian wondered what Erol was thinking about. Was it of The Horseman and drinking himself into oblivion? Was it of the wife Nesta had mentioned he had lost in the attack on Velaris?
But eventually Erol nodded. “I will consider your offer.”
“Good,” Cassian said. “I’ll come down to the base of the mountain at ten. If you’re there I’ll take you up. If you aren’t, that's fine too.”
Nodding again, Erol turned to Nesta. “Here you go, ice queen,” Erol said with an underlying gentleness that belittled his jest. He handed a brown paper package to Nesta, which was tied with string. “Don’t forget this.”
Then, Erol bowed his head in goodbye and left.
Together, Nesta and Cassian watched the male’s back, until his horns and hooves were swallowed by the crowds.
When Cassian turned to Nesta, he found her hugging the parcel tightly to her chest, as if she were afraid it might disappear.
He touched his fingers to her cheek again and those eyes cleared even further, the final wisps of moving silver vanishing into the blue of her irises. “Want to go back to the House, sweetheart?”
But Nesta shook her head and a sudden determination struck across her features, lancing through her previously hollow expression. “No. I don’t—no. I want to stay.”
“Nobody will mind if you want to go back up to the House,” Cassian dared to tell her, because he needed Nesta to know she was not expected to suffer thorough a dinner for the sake of him. But he knew she would do it, somehow, and that knowledge was warming—like the sun’s first rays at the hint of spring.
“I don’t want to run away from it,” Nesta said quietly. She gripped at the sleeve of his shirt. “I’m fed up of treading on eggshells. If I have to live with it, I won’t hide from it. Not anymore.” She clutched the parcel more tightly to her chest. Lifted her chin. “I want to go and eat. I’m hungry.” That surprised Cassian. Usually Nesta’s trauma swept away any desire for food, but he studied the determination set into her brow and knew that this was her way of accepting her battle fatigue. Of acknowledging it and moving on.
Even so, Nesta cast a wary look over her shoulder. The crowds had thinned out now and the street was all but empty.
“The procession doesn’t come this way,” Cassian assured her. “It travels from East to West.”
He wanted to touch her again—to be obvious with his affection—but now she had come back to herself Cassian wasn’t quite sure what was allowed. Despite their handholding earlier that day, Cassian couldn't banish the words Nesta had told him the night prior: that she didn’t know what she wanted.
It meant that Cassian was in a tenuous position: if he was to initiate something that Nesta wasn’t ready for she might spook and backtrack. He needed her to lead the way—to dictate what she did and didn’t want, even if that meant yielding any sense of control outside of the bedroom.
And Cassian had made a vow to himself that he would let her do just that, even if it killed him. But knowing he had to reign himself in—check himself at every turn—was already exhausting.
So, he settled for what he’d done the last time she’d had a severe episode. He rested his lightly hand on her lower back—a grounding touch rather than a possessive one.
“We haven’t even gotten around to ordering food yet,” Cassian told Nesta conversationally as they began to head back to the river. “Amren and Varian also got caught in the crowds and Rhys was held up at the Hewn City.” Relief flickered in his stomach. “Lorrian and Frawley should be here by now, too,” Cassian announced. “Roksana, too.”
Nesta’s head whipped to his and there—life sparked in her eyes. It wasn’t as bright as usual, but it was there, and Cassian felt the dull bubble of her joy. “Really?” she asked. Her gaze intensified, her expression disbelieving as she raised on her tiptoes in an attempt to spy over the railings of the bridge as they crossed the river towards the restaurant.
“Really,” Cassian assured her, one corner of his tilting upwards. He coaxed her fingers away from the rectangular package she was holding. It was fairly light and wrapped in brown paper and tied with string, but he plucked it from her hands.
Nesta let him. Admitted, “I didn’t know they were coming.”
“Of course,” Cassian replied, as he ghosted a wing around her shoulders in replacement of the hand that had been resting on her lower back.
“Frawley all but invited herself,” Cassian admitted with a grin as they neared the table. He spied Frawley’s white hair and Lorrian’s broad shoulders clad in a green tunic. Elain waved at them and he spied the apex of tiny wings. “Conniving witch,” he muttered.
And rather than retreating into herself at all of the people sitting at the table, a faint smile transformed Nesta’s face at his mock insult. Gods, she was so unbelievably beautiful, Cassian thought. He’d been so beside himself with worry that he’d not had a moment to truly look at her, but… her hair was down, with only the front swept to the back of her head and held with a golden leaf pin. Paired with the light eggshell blue of her simple gown, her features were less mask-like and more… soft. Vulnerable.
“I thought I was a witch?” she asked, twisting to look up at him.
Cassian grinned. “You’re a haughty witch. It’s different, Nes.”
Nesta huffed a breath of laughter which left Cassian’s teeth flashing. He was happy—so happy to see her coming back to herself—that he forgot he was supposed to maintaining his composure around her.
Cassian opened her mouth to tell her she was beautiful, but a flash of black and wings drew his attention. Cassian’s eyes snapped to the table to see a little blur zooming towards them—
Nesta barely had time to instinctively hold out her arms as Roksana ploughed into her. Little arms tried in vein to wrap around Nesta’s skirts and the surprised laugh that left Nesta was so light and full of gentle joy that Cassian couldn’t help but laugh, too.
“Hi sinta, are you well?” Nesta asked in Illyrian, bowing her head to press a kiss to the top of the youngling’s head as Roksana squeezed Nesta’s legs. For once, Roksana’s hair wasn’t tangled but gleaming, contained in a woven plait by a ribbon.
“Are you well, Roksana?” Nesta asked again in Illyrian when the youngling didn’t reply. She smoothed a hand over the girl’s head, the gesture affectionate, not catching the way everyone around the table straightened at Nesta’s unexpected use of Illyrian.
Most fae did not bother to learn it. Did not deem Illyrian worthy, but most around the table  knew it well enough given either their upbringing or due to court dealings.
Nesta’s pronunciation was much better than when Cassian had last heard it. Cassian suspected Mas had been teaching Nesta in exchange for the writing lessons—even Illyrians such as Mas did not like to leave a gift unpaid.
Nodding, Roksana pressed her face further into the skirt of Nesta’s dress, until Sala bopped the little girl with her head in hello. Roksana grinned, pulling at Sala’s ears so she could hug the manticore’s head to her.
“I didn’t know you were coming,” Nesta greeted, looking between Frawley and Lorrian. The witch was seated next to Amren with Lorrian opposite next to Rhysand, who had forgone his wings and was wearing his usual immaculate black pants and shirt.
Lorrian winked at Nesta from where he was sitting next to Rhys, his wings rustling behind him as if he was uncomfortable in his formal tunic.
“We decided to venture out of The Steppes for the belligerent oaf,” Frawley told Nesta brusquely, as if she was completely uncaring that it was Cassian’s birthday. An ice blue eye landed on Cassian briefly whilst the hazel remained fixated on Nesta. “It’s mainly an excuse to see you,” she finished with a slow grin.
A soft snort issued from Nesta. The sound was echoed by Amren, who held up a glass and knocked it against Frawley’s. Cassian did not know how they had become such fast friends in the minutes they’d been sat together, but it didn’t surprise him; both Amren and Frawley had an ancient bite to them that was similar to Nesta’s.
Gods, the three of them together were going to wreak havoc and decimate any sense of male pride around the table.
As if sensing Cassian’s thought, Varian shot he and Lorrian a despairing glance. Lori  looked unconcerned, as if he had expected nothing less and was overjoyed at the prospect.
“I’m already regretting inviting you, witch,” Cassian mock-growled at Frawley.
Amren cackled in delight. Tapped a neatly manicured nail on the table to indicate the spare seat opposite her, and told Nesta, “I saved you a seat, girl.”
Raising her eyebrows, Nesta slid into the seat beside Cassian. Roksana climbed up into Nesta’s lap with the elegance that betrayed her age.
“Sorry I’m late,” Nesta murmured.
“You’re not late,” Mor replied, sweeping the eyelashes of one of her eyes into a wink. The gesture was overly familiar in a way that roused Cassian’s suspicion. “In fact,” Mor continued, dodging the frown he shot her way, “here comes our food, which means you’re actually just on time.”
***
To Cassian's utmost surprise, Nesta did make an effort to eat. He didn’t know if it was to prove to herself that she could best her trauma, to set an example to Roksana, or simply because there were enough of them around the table to notice if she didn’t touch her food, but he didn’t care.
Watching out of the corner of his eye, Cassian clocked every small bite, and when he noticed her looking for a second helping of the chicken only to find it gone, he had slipped his quietly onto her plate.
The wide set to her eyes as Nesta stared at him had only rendered her irises more captivatingly blue. She had murmured her thanks. Passed him the potatoes he was so fond of with a flicker of a smile.
Cassian’s heart had sped up but he had made himself grin back at her. Discreetly passed the dish to Mor disguised with a wolfish grin, but his friend raised an eyebrow at him anyway, the gesture knowing.
They had flown back to the House of Wind around ten, Cassian deliberately leading the way for Nesta, Roksana and Sala around the outskirts of the city so as to avoid the celebrations. And all the while Cassian tried not to fly too close to her. Allowed her space and time to be herself without him acting as a shadow.
It didn't stop Cassian from spending half of the evening with his eyes on his cards and the other on Nesta. Watching surreptitiously as she spoke with Frawley and Amren on the chaise lounge by the silver fire. With Maya and the girls. With Erol, who to Cassian’s amazement had been at the base of the mountain when Cassian had flown down to collect him.
An easy camaraderie existed between Erol and Nesta, and Cassian soon found that Erol was a likeable male, his demeanour easy, even if it was used to mask a layer of pain. The latter of which Cassian could have sworn he felt as he, Rhys, Mor, Azriel, Varian and Erol played cards around a large, three legged circular table.
“Do you have family in Velaris, Erol?” Mor asked conversationally, as she raked some chips towards her with an air of satisfaction.
Mor’s win had been a lucky one and Cassian knew that she’d soon be parting with chips faster than she was gaining them. Despite her protests, Mor was not a strategic player; often losing patience and stumbling after a dramatic, thrilling game than remaining steadfast for the long haul.
“My wife died a year and a half ago during the attack on Velaris outside of her shop in the Rainbow,” Erol replied with a lightness that did nothing to cover the abrasive agony that fell like a shadow across his features. “She was a musician—a violinist,” he added, casting a look to the lone fiddler Rhys had employed for the evening on Cassian’s request.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Mor said softly. “Was the shop Strings & Scrolls?”
When Erol nodded, Mor shook her head mournfully. “I used to visit. I was sad to see it close.”
Erol swallowed. “It didn’t make sense to keep it open without her,” he replied, his eyes firmly on his cards rather than those around the table.
It was again that Cassian felt it—a sharp flare of deep cutting pain that was not he or Nesta’s. It… felt different. Scented different.
Cassian remembered Nesta saying that she could distinguish peoples emotions by scent. He had jokingly asked Nesta what he had tasted like when she’d told him, but now he didn’t find it funny at all.
And this shared gift… it was new. Was it because the bond between them was less constricted at the moment? It hadn’t happened before.
But Cassian didn’t allow himself to ponder too long. Made himself plaster on a grin, knowing that was what was needed—a distraction. “Mor is tone deaf,” Cassian drawled to Erol. “Your ears have been saved from near destruction.”
Mor let out a burst of outrage, but Erol lifted his eyes above his cards and met Cassian’s. They swam briefly with gratitude and then the pain disappeared, as if a door had been slammed shut.
“You’re an ass,” Mor cried at Cassian, but her eyes were laughing. “And you can come down from your high horse, whenever I have the misfortune of dancing with you my feet are bruised the next day.”
“The only dance I can perform seamlessly is in battle,” Cassian told Mor with an air that was wholly unfazed. Leaning cockily back in his chair, he stretched his wings to relieve the ache. “Nobody can fault me for that.”
“That’s true,” Mor grumbled, because even Cassian couldn’t deny that when he fought on the battlefield he might as well have been in a ballroom; every move and cut a fluid, faultless dance, that was in Cassian’s mind, more intricate than any waltz or foxtrot.
“He’s uncommonly good,” Mor admitted to Erol, before her gaze snapped to Azriel. “As are you,” she told him.
And to Cassian’s surprise Azriel’s shadows did not lift. He only turned his dark eyes to Rhys and said, “Looks like you’re no longer deemed worthy on the battlefield.”
And that had marked the end of any further questions regarding Erol’s past and started a heated debate on how good Rhys truly was in combat without his magic, instead.
At midnight—at Amren’s insistence—Nesta had allowed her magic to swirl, until the fire that was blasted from the ships cannons turned silver.
Together, they watched metallic flames sizzle across the sky in a licking, fiery sheen.
Cassian smiled to himself.
“She could be more powerful than me,” Rhys commented in his ear. Cassian was leaning against the rail with a glass of wine clutched in his hand. “She is more powerful than me,” his brother corrected, but there was no derision in his tone, only curiosity.
“Yes,” Cassian admitted, because he’d known that for a long time. Knew that the power Nesta had torn from the Cauldron’s depths was ancient, wholly other and so multi-faceted.
Rhys didn’t say anything else, but Cassian sensed he’d wanted to. As if a thought or knowledge had taken root in his brother’s mind. But for now, Cassian was happy to let it lie. Rhys would speak to him when he deemed it necessary… if it was truly important at all.
So, Cassian allowed Mor to drag him back into the House on the insistence that they finish their game. Rhys remained out on the balcony, having lost his chips early on in the evening, and when Cassian watched the glass doors whisper open a good half hour later and Nesta floated out into the dark, he sat up straight.
Tracked her movement as she moved to the balcony and began to talk to someone—to Rhys.
Everything in Cassian stiffened. Rhys and Nesta made a deliberate point of ensuring they were never alone. And even though the two of them had been making an effort in the past few days, Cassian lasted all but five minutes before he set down his cards in the middle of the game and followed Nesta outside with as much subtlety as a brick to the face.
“Am I interrupting?”
The deep rumble of his voice lanced through the low conversation and the swoosh of the doors as they closed behind him.
The night air was brisk outside the House’s magic, but he weathered the icy wind without so much as the bat of an eyelid. Instead, his eyes roamed to Nesta, where she was standing close to the ledge with zero fear.
It was something that had always terrified Cassian when she’d first come to stay in Illyria: at times, he’d known she had wondered what would happen if she stepped off the ledge. But Sala was beside her now, and Cassian knew that the manticore would throw herself into the sky and catch Nesta should she somehow escape the balcony railing and fall.
Rhys, who was standing a five or six feet away from Nesta, stopped speaking and slowly turned to his brother. There wasn’t ire in his expression—or worse, that thundering calm that usually accompanied his conversations with Nesta. Instead, his violet eyes were still and steady, glittering only with the reflection of the stars that twinkled brilliantly in the sky.
Raising her chin, Nesta caught Cassian with the intense steel blue of her eyes, even though their gaze was already locked in place. “No.”
Cassian’s worry eased enough to test the atmosphere. It was not awkward—intense, perhaps—but Nesta seemed… relaxed enough. Not hostile, anyway.
Cassian fired a question towards Rhys’s mind, What are you talking about?
His brother made a tsk sound. Never you mind.
Tell me, Cassian demanded, and he made the mistake of looking at Rhys rather than Nesta. And in that stupid, minute moment, Cassian knew that Nesta would clock that they were speaking mind-to-mind.
Rhys’s laugh was amused, as if he too had watched the realisation of Cassian’s mistake flit across his features. You are an open book. Ask Nesta, if you want.
“I’m going to bed to find my mate,” Rhys announced loudly. He clapped Cassian’s shoulder as he left. “Goodnight brother.” He turned and dipped his chin at Nesta, in a gesture that seemed to hold more weight than a simple farewell. “Nesta.”
Be a good boy and behave, Rhys crooned into his brother’s head as he slid back through the glass doors, no doubt sensing the rising territorial beast that was snapping at Cassian’s heels. No fucking on the balcony, even if you want to.
Cassian’s snort was a growl. As if you’d be able to stop me.
My House, my rules.
A smooth chuckle sounded in Cassian’s head as Cassian envisaged flipping Rhys off. Then, Rhys was retreating entirely from his head and Cassian’s mental shield of fire was an impenetrable ring.
“Were you talking about me?” Nesta demanded as soon as Rhys disappeared.
“No,” Cassian replied on instinct. Then winced. Yes. Sort of. “He was telling me to respect the House.”
Nesta snorted. “As if that would make the slightest bit of difference.”
Cassian barked a delighted laugh. The sound was rich. “That’s exactly what I told him,” he confessed, but then his expression sobered as he noticed her sluggish movement as she turned back to the balcony—the slight slack to her posture which was usually ramrod straight.
“How are you faring?” he asked softly.
Nesta shrugged simply. “I’m fine.”
And she was fine, but she was also undoubtedly exhausted. Now Cassian had noticed it, he could Cassian feel the weight of her tiredness tugging on his stomach, trying to coax it to his toes.
Nesta needed to sleep, and the constant worry that lived inside of him when it came to Nesta’s wellbeing peaked.
But telling Nesta what to do was akin to prodding an angry kelpie with a stick. So, instead, Cassian stated the obvious. “It’s cold out here. Do you want to come back inside?”
Nesta simply shook her head. “I like to look at the faelights,” she admitted.
Curling a wing around her body to ward off the chill, Cassian faced the balcony rail and peered down at Velaris. “You prefer the view here to Illyria?”
He glanced sideways at her just in time to see Nesta scrunch up her nose. “It is beautiful,” she said, but there was a firmness to her voice as she continued, “but the stars aren’t as vivid here. You can barely see pareho.”
“No,” Cassian admitted, because that was the one thing about living in Velaris that had bothered him.
Pareho had always been like a compass to him—a piece of home wherever he travelled.
“My mother and I used to look for pareho every night,” he announced, parting with another piece of himself. “I think it was a method to distract me from the brutal weather. Our fires were always too small and once the cold set in your couldn’t rid it from your bones.”
Nesta nodded in a way that told him she understood what it was to be unable to get warm. Slid her hand across the railing until the tops of her fingers were touching his. It was her way of comforting him and whilst it might seem like a simple gesture to anyone else, it was monumental to him.
Starved of a loving upbringing after he’d been torn from his mother, it had taken Cassian a long while of living with Rhys, his mother and Azriel, to understand that he needed contact more than the average person.
So, when Nesta withdrew her hand, the cold that swept in was especially biting. Everything in Cassian wanted to reach for her again, to connect them in some physical way, but then Nesta was holding the rectangular brown-wrapped item she had been carrying earlier.
Cassian could have sworn the package hadn’t been there seconds earlier. The soldier in him had already scoured the balcony the moment he’d stepped outside, which meant that the House had magicked it into existence; either because Nesta had willed it or because the House was a nosy, interfering being.
Given that the House had dumped ice chips into his bath earlier, Cassian seriously suspected the latter, but he quickly lost his train of thought as Nesta all but thrust the parcel into his hands—as if she was nervous.
“Here,” she announced abruptly. Her eyes slid away from his face, to the apex of his wings, as if she had never seen them before and was suddenly mesmerised.
Unable to stifle his grin at her awkwardness, Cassian tilted his head until he caught her eyes again, even though his breath had started to bubble in his throat. “What’s this, sweetheart?”
Nesta raised a perfectly shaped eyebrow. Downplayed the moment in the only way she knew how. “Is it not customary to gift someone something on their birthday?”
“It is,” Cassian confirmed unnecessarily, still grinning. His pulse pushed desperately against his skin and he hoped to Oya that Nesta hadn’t spotted it. Was this why Nesta had been late? Had she been caught up in the procession because she’d deemed him worthy enough gone to buy him a gift? “I didn’t expect—” he started.
Ice blue eyes flashing in irritation, Nesta made a grab for the parcel, stopping him in mid-sentence. “If you don’t want it, I’ll take it back—”
Cassian was too quick: he held the gift high above her head, so she couldn’t reach it.
“Good try, sweetheart,” he snickered softly. “It’s too late to take it back now.”
Nesta opened her mouth to speak, but then her eyes dragged away from him, to her left… to the remaining friends and family in the open room beyond.
“Now or later?” Cassian asked, his voice dropping out of its usual playfulness and into something soft—shared only between them. He dared to raise a hand to her cheek. Grazed his knuckles over her skin until she was looking at him again.
A moment passed in which Cassian suddenly couldn’t breathe. He didn’t know if it was because he was so taken by the unknown gift he was holding in one hand, or because Nesta was consumed by nerves. Since their scent had interwoven, Cassian sometimes found it hard to dissect who was feeling what—as if their connection had morphed into something more, despite the fact that it was not fully formed.
Nesta didn’t bow to her discomfort. Only shifted her weight to her other foot. Announced firmly, “It’s your birthday.”
“Later then,” Cassian told her selfishly, because he knew if he said later she’d have to be with him, and he hoped that was in his bed—or hers. He didn’t care, as long as he was with her.
He thought back to what he had told her yesterday. Good enough. And being with her like this was enough if it meant that she wanted him, even if there wasn’t a label. He could learn to live with that even though he would secretly always yearn for more.
His mate. She was his mate. Cassian had known it for so long—from the moment he’d heard her voice across the battlefield. Everything had snapped into that first lock then, and now the key was turning again and he hungered after it; that final connection that meant that someone regarded him as worthy enough to be bonded to him in the utmost way.
As if Nesta had seen right through him, she snorted. And even though she’d already told him earlier that he could come and find her in bed, she admonished him, “Good try. Open it now.”
Lifting an enquiring eyebrow, Cassian gave the parcel a little shake—testing its weight and solidity. “It’s not a book,” he announced.
Another snort—but this one was laced with amusement. “I can see why Azriel is the spy and not you,” she quipped wryly.
Delight coursed through him, pounding with the nervous tempo of his heart. But he leaned towards her, unable to help it, whispering away the distance between them. He bowed his head, ran his calloused thumb along the perfect line of her jaw until his free hand was cupping her cheek.
Nesta allowed him to tip her face up towards his, until his breath rasped against her skin, “So cold, you cruel, icy witch.”
When Nesta’s lips parted, everything inside of Cassian tightened and coiled in anticipation. But Nesta didn’t raise on tiptoes to brush her mouth over his. Instead, she gripped at his wrist and breathed, “Open it. Please.”
Cassian paused. Searched her imploring, vulnerable eyes and drew back. Obeyed her command, until brown paper fell away to reveal a silver frame. Beneath the glass was a midnight piece of parchment bordered with a perfect rendering of the night sky and its stars. And in its centre, full of neat lines of swirls and sweeps of black, was an artistic rendering of something familiar. It was Illyrian, Cassian realised, as his eyes scanned the writing, but it was more than that, this recognition, as if it was buried deep inside of him and the words were being pulled to the forefront.
It was a poem—no, a lullaby—and Cassian knew what the lullaby was from the first line, but he continued to read through the blur in his eyes. And when he arrived at the last stanza, some inner shell broke inside of him and memories broke free, tumbling one after the other: the whisper of breath against his ear as a soft lilting voice sang in his ear; dark hair tumbling over his shoulder as a cheek was pressed to his; crisp winter air with a perfumed undertone of something green and floral—the scent of his mother as she enveloped him in her arms.
For a long while, Cassian couldn’t speak. He had turned stock still and the lump in his throat was so overwhelmingly prominent that he couldn’t even work his throat to swallow it down.
But eventually, he somehow got his body to obey, even though he couldn’t look up at her. Couldn’t stop staring at the last verse of the lullaby he had never forgotten—that had stayed with him through everything.
Goodnight my warrior heart, Soon Mother won’t hold you fast.
One day she will watch you go,
But she’ll search high and low,
For the twin stars in the night.
A hush fell over the balcony, like a sweeping rush of wind.
“What’s this, Nesta?” he asked eventually, aware that he’d already asked the exact same thing minutes earlier.
It was a low, broken command that he couldn’t tamper down. He felt Nesta’s heart skip a beat—but he barely processed it—couldn’t do anything but stare and stare at the frame in his hands and the words; some of which were familiar, whilst some remained entirely foreign.
Cassian sucked in a shaky breath. “How—” he asked hoarsely. “How did you find this?”
There was a rustle of movement as Cassian felt Nesta move closer.
“Since you told me the few lines from the lullaby your mother used to sing to you, I’ve been speaking to a lot of the widows,” Nesta began, her voice hushed and unsure.
Cassian hated that she was doubting herself, but he couldn’t look at her—couldn’t let her see the vulnerable window into his very self. Not yet, anyway. For a moment, it was just for him.
“I didn’t mean to find it for you as a birthday present,” Nesta continued, “I just—I thought it would bring you solace, to have a piece of your mother that wasn’t a memory. Something tangible. But then I found it and—”
Nesta broke off abruptly and Cassian finally looked up. He had been hanging onto her every word, and as she spoke it had seemed like something greater than a confession—a secret being created and divulged wholly for him.
Cassian needed to hear more—needed to know everything—so he met her eyes.
Nesta’s cheeks were flushed pink. Her lip was trapped between her teeth and as Cassian stared at her, she bit down hard enough that Cassian felt the faint pain of it flare down the bond.
Cassian wanted to wipe the uncertainty from her features. Wanted to kiss her eyelids, her nose, her lips, but his hands only clutched the frame that finally connected him to a past that had previously been a murky, precious fragment.
“That’s why I was with Erol today,” Nesta confessed. “He’s a calligrapher. He copied down the Illyrian for you. I thought you could hang it in the bungalow.” There was a stumbling pause. “If you want to,” Nesta added quickly. “Or you can just keep it somewhere else. Wherever you want…”
She trailed off. Swallowed. It was the most unsure Cassian had ever seen her and somehow it made that feeling sharpen inside of him. The mental fire around his mind sputtered out and Cassian let them. Knew Nesta could feel everything when her eyes widened.
“I know it’s not much—” she started.
“It is everything,” Cassian interrupted, his eyes shining. “It is everything to me, Nesta. I—” he fumbled, but then his face was wet and he couldn’t stop it.
Nesta’s eyes grew even rounder but then he was wrapping her in his arms and his face was buried just above the hollow of her collarbone. His wings furled around her on instinct, cocooning them as Cassian felt eyes on his back—the membrane of his wings—but then they were gone.
As nosy as they were, Cassian’s family knew when to become scarce.
Fingers splayed across his back and Cassian tasted Nesta’s surprise, the tartness of it in his mouth, like sugared lemons.
Nesta seemed to sense that he couldn’t say much. His eyes travelled the black, beautiful ink thanks to the light that filtered down upon them from the moon and stars.
“Do you like it?” Nesta asked quietly after a long, stretched out moment.
Cassian dropped a hand from the frame to touch Nesta’s cheek. “I love it,” he said roughly. I love you. “Thank you. I don’t—I don’t know what to say.”
Nesta’s soft, knowing smile was the most beautiful he’d ever seen. It opened up an entire new world for him as she shook her head slightly. “You don’t have to say anything. I just… wanted you to have it.”
“I love it,” Cassian repeated again. Hesitated. Wanted to kiss her so badly, but in the end, only bowed to brush a kiss against her cheek.
When he drew back, the House vanished the frame from Cassian’s hands.
He started but Nesta just smiled again. “It’s safe in your room.”
Cassian levelled Nesta with a look. “The House has become a meddler.”
Nesta huffed a breath but her lips were tilted up towards the night sky. “It thinks it knows best.”
“I think it likes you,” Cassian corrected, but Nesta only shrugged, her smile dropping.
Cassian’s heart stumbled after it, flailing in vain to catch it and keep it on her face.
“That would be a first,” Nesta murmured wryly.
“Not true,” Cassian challenged fiercely. He searched her eyes, desperate for her to understand how sincere he was. He supposed she could feel it. The shields around his emotions were well and truly extinguished with no chance of being ignited. “I have liked you from the moment I saw you below the wall.”
“You told me I was a selfish brat who would have allowed my family to starve if it was not for Feyre,” Nesta shot back, but there was no bite in her tone. It was… self accepting.
Nesta looked away. Stared to the right—out at the faelights twinkling below them. Shrugged. “Which is true,” she commented lightly.
She turned back to the railing and Cassian withdrew his wings. “I wasn’t raised like Feyre. She was young and wild and my mother deemed her unworthy for the marriage mart from a young age. But I was born and bred for it.” Nesta took a deep breath. It sounded like a tired, defeated sigh but it was interwoven with something grim. “I didn’t know how to use a bow. So, when the food ran out I got engaged. I thought it would give my family one less mouth to feed, but then Feyre brought home food.”
Nesta shrugged as if it was nothing, but Cassian’s heart stopped beating as her expression turned distant.
And Cassian knew somehow, that was when that human bit of filth had attacked her.
“He hurt you,” Cassian stated softly. There was a dangerous edge to his voice, even though he knew the answer.
The slightest dip of Nesta’s chin had Cassian’s blood roaring in his ears. He willed it to be quiet. And because he needed to erase the haunted look that had settled across her features, Cassian confessed hoarsely, “I was captivated by you from the moment I met you.”
Nesta’s head snapped to his, her lips parting in surprise.
“Nothing is ever black and white,” Cassian insisted, searching her face. “Neither are people. But how I’ve felt about you, it’s always been startlingly clear, Nesta.” He raised a hand to her cheek. Dropped it. “I like you for exactly who you are. I always have.”
A silence whipped through the balcony with the accompanying wind, ruffling the mountain peaks in the distance. Surprise scenting of jasmine and vanilla pushed insistently at Cassian’s insides, travelling down that bond that was still open rather than clamped close at her end.
The sensation made Cassian hyperaware and when he delved deeper, he found that below the startled shock there was something else… that deep, underlying exhaustion he had read in her posture earlier. It was relentless and heavy to the point that Cassian was surprised she was still awake.
Before he could think, Cassian murmured the instinctive words that would always rise when it came to her well-being. “You need to sleep.”
Nesta didn’t question him. Only dismissed him by turning her head back to the view. “I’m fine.”
“I know it wears you out,” Cassian confessed softly. He had seen Nesta suffer from battle trauma many times now. Usually it ended up with her passed out in bed, and whilst Nesta’s trauma hadn’t completely overtaken her this evening, it had been significant enough for her fire to want to act independently of her will.
“Let me take you to bed,” Cassian insisted.
A smirk ghosted across Nesta’s expression. “It’s not your birthday any more, you don’t call the shots.”
But Cassian wasn’t listening. He swept her up in her arms before she could protest, flying them down to the level of the House that harboured Nesta’s bedroom. Once he’d landed softly on the balcony, he said, “I don’t think I’ve ever called the shots when it comes to you, sweetheart.”
Begrudgingly, Cassian let her step out of his embrace. Followed her to her bedroom and tried to focus on that exhaustion winding around his ribcage that told him that Nesta was tired.
Because right now, if they were to do more than sleep, Cassian would give Nesta everything. Knew that whatever happened would morph beyond pleasure for him. He wouldn’t be able to keep his emotions in check. Certainly wouldn’t be able to pretend that she was his everything and he wanted every single piece of her in a way that was so intense he could scarcely breathe when he thought of it.
It was something Cassian needed to consider when they were finally back at the bungalow: if they were to join completely, he’d have to remain wholly in control. Would need to find his completion on her skin or in her mouth, rather than inside of her.
Just the thought of Nesta’s lips wrapped around him had everything in Cassian groaning, the phantom pleasure pushing with an insistence that made his skin ache.
Nesta cocked her head at him. She had floated into her bedroom but Cassian halted at the doorway. And even though her eyes gleamed, they remained a little dull—as if the spark was unable to take life. “What are you thinking about?”
“That you’re more tired than you’re letting on,” Cassian stated, even as his arousal seeped into the air. “That you need to sleep even though you won’t admit it.”
“I don’t want to sleep.”
“Sweetheart,” Cassian murmured softly, and somehow, that one word had Nesta slumping.
“I’m tired,” she admitted. Her nose wrinkled in irritation—or was it frustration? “But I want—”
“Tomorrow,” Cassian vowed, his wings ruffling in anticipation. Mother above, he would never stop wanting her. Would never stop craving the taste of her skin—of her. “When we’re back in Illyria.”
“Will you stay?” Nesta started, her voice husky but hesitant at the same time. She reached for Cassian’s hand, pulling him across the threshold. “I don’t think—“
She stopped. Flushed before she could freeze the pink rushing to her cheeks. And Cassian knew what she meant, but he also knew that if he touched her like that he’d lose all sense of control.
She raised her chin anyway—the act so aggressively Nesta that the left side of Cassian’s mouth kicked up.
“I can help you sleep,” he vowed and tugged her towards the bed. “Come.”
Tags (let me know if you want to be added/removed): @arinbelle @superspiritfestival @sayosdreams @perseusannabeth @mylittlebigplanet @biggestwingspan-az @bellsqueen @ekaterinakostrova @bookstantrash @prophecyerised @rainbowcheetah512 @awesomelena555 @wannawriteyouabook @callmestarky @lovelynesta @melphss @darkshadowqueensrule @laylaameer01 @a-trifling-matter @grouchycritic7794 @thalia-2-rose @champanheandluxxury @swankii-art-teacher @princessconsuela02 @lavendergoomsltd @little-diyosa @princessofmerchants-reads @jeakat @sjm-things @imwritingthesewords @nestable @inejbrekkxr @silvernesta @inyourmindeye @amelie775 @helen-the-weirdo @pizzaneverdisappoints @wishfulimaginings @trash-for-nessian @my-fan-side @sophilightwood @valkyriesupremacy @vidalinav @onceupona-chaos @inardour @thesunremembersyourface @teagoddess99 @ellies-iced-coffee @nehemikkele @misswonderflower @nessiantrashh
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duskandstarlight · 24 days ago
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Embers & Light (Chapter 39 smutty teaser, Nessian fic)
The smut is finally here folks! Enjoy this snippet... I don’t have a firm ‘live’ date yet for this chapter given that my wedding is coming up very soon, but I’ll let you know once it’s been sent off to my lovely beta.
Oh... and I feel like you expect the filth from me, but for those not familiar with my writing, this is NSFW
Lastly, if any of you have slipped off my taglist lemme know. Some blog links don’t work, potentially because you haven’t posted? And after a while I remove people. Tumblr is a minefield I don’t understand, so just holler and I’ll try and fix it :) 
Cassian was reaching for his cock at the same time that Nesta ordered, “Now.” The word was a barked, strangled snarl. “Now, Cassian.”
In that moment, Cassian knew there would be nothing gentle about how this was going to play out. It was going to be rough and frantic, riding a wave of pleasure that had been building for too long. Knew afterwards that they would sink to the cold floor in a mass of tangled limbs and mingled breath.
And Cassian wanted that. Had never wanted release so badly in his life.
Something clambered in the back of his mind. Something he needed to remember, but his limbs were moving of their own volition. He pumped his cock once, twice, three times and then he was lined up against her entrance.
The heat and slickness of her was sinful and divine. A hand flew up to span her cheek but it ended up half in the hair that had fallen free of her braid.
He pushed it back from her face just as she tugged him in for a bruising kiss.
There was a moment when everything paused and trembled. As Nesta pulled away and stared at him, her eyes swimming silver—glowing with it—her pupils obscured.
His magic surged at the sight of it. Crashed against his skin as if it was trying to escape. His siphons burned bloody.
Tags (let me know if you want to be added/removed): @arinbelle @superspiritfestival @sayosdreams @perseusannabeth @mylittlebigplanet @biggestwingspan-az @bellsqueen @ekaterinakostrova @bookstantrash @prophecyerised @rainbowcheetah512 @awesomelena555 @wannawriteyouabook @lovelynesta @melphss @darkshadowqueensrule @laylaameer01 @a-trifling-matter @grouchycritic7794 @thalia-2-rose @champanheandluxxury @swankii-art-teacher @princessconsuela02 @lavendergoomsltd @princessofmerchants-reads @jeakat @sjm-things @imwritingthesewords @nestable @inejbrekkxr @silvernesta @inyourmindeye @amelie775 @helen-the-weirdo @pizzaneverdisappoints @wishfulimaginings @trash-for-nessian @my-fan-side @sophilightwood @valkyriesupremacy @vidalinav @onceupona-chaos @inardour @thesunremembersyourface @teagoddess99 @ellies-iced-coffee @nehemikkele @misswonderflower @nessiantrashh ​
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duskandstarlight · 3 months ago
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Embers & Light (Chapter 34)
Notes: A day early--I’m not sure what’s come over me?! I’ve been writing this fic for nine months or so and I can finally announce that Cassian’s balls may no longer be blue...
Please reblog if you enjoy :) Can’t wait to hear your thoughts!
As usual, let me know if you want to be tagged/untagged. And please excuse any typos, I don’t have a beta :)
Chapter 34 Nesta
Dinner was at the river house. Nesta knew it was not called for but she had changed her clothes and re-braided her hair, mainly because the House had thumped the dress with such insistence onto the bed that Nesta had given up trying to resists its efforts.
The dress was of the Illyrian style Nesta had become used to, the hem falling halfway down her calf, but fashioned with three quarter sleeves and tapering in slightly at the waist before pooling into an a-line skirt that skimmed her hips. But what made it different from her other dresses was the neckline. Whilst it was technically square, cutting a stark line across her collar bone, the material was made not of the soft amethyst fabric used for the rest of the dress, but a fine, transparent netting of the same deep purple. It clung to her chest like a second skin, until it gave way to the original, denser fabric which arched over her breasts revealing a hint of cleavage that Nesta would never usually dare to show.
But the design was elegant and simple—her, somehow— so, Nesta did not think twice about it until she walked through the glass doors of the dining room and onto the balcony, only to watch Cassian’s eyes widen.
Pine and musk carried on the wind. The scent was so heavy and so tempting Nesta fought the urge to clench fists of her skirts—anything to summon a sensation that would distract her from him.
“You’re alive then,” Cassian drawled lazily, but there was something in the way his body was uncharacteristically still that told Nesta he was anything but relaxed. He had changed into a clean tunic and brushed his hair free of its usual tangles, but he was sporting a mottled bruise on his cheek and a fast-healing split lip that hadn’t been there earlier. Nesta supposed he’d spent the rest of his afternoon sparring with one of his brothers to end up looking like that.
Cassian had been fighting a lot lately. Even when he and Nesta were visiting the cottage, it was not unusual for he and Lorrian to disappear into the paddock after dinner. An hour later they would emerge sore and limping, their already fading injuries a glimpse into who had landed the most blows. Sometimes Maya would watch them from the window, but Nesta always stayed curled up in her armchair by the fire, conversing with Frawley and running her hands through Sala’s silken fur.
Narrowing her eyes into a glare, Nesta strode towards him, her skirts swishing around her like wisps of magic. Excitement flared unbidden in the pit of her stomach, like a dozen butterflies taking flight. She stacked up her walls slightly, unsure as to whether it was from her or him. “Where’s Azriel?”
Those hazel eyes did not stop staring. Did not flicker or shift even a millimetre from her body. They looked almost hungry. “He’s already at the House.”
Nesta shrugged as if he was not unravelling her very self. The tension was too much, especially when she was already anxious about eating dinner with his family. There would be so many eyes on her tonight. If she took one step wrong, someone would see it. There would be no hiding and she didn’t want to. Nesta was ready for it, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t nervous. “Ok.”
The boom of wings grew in the near distance and then Sala landed atop the balcony. The beast neatly folded in her wings as she trotted towards Nesta, and Nesta bowed to kiss Sala’s head, thankful that the manticore had arrived so she could drag her attention away from Cassian. “Just in time,” she murmured gratefully into Sala’s fur and the beast rumbled in response.
“She likes hunting here,” Cassian observed, but his words were strained enough that Nesta glanced up at him.
Anticipation lanced through Nesta’s midriff like tiny shards of ice as she noticed where Cassian’s eyes had snagged. Biting back a smirk, Nesta discreetly pushed her elbows tighter against her waist, further emphasising the swell of her cleavage before she straightened. “If you think I haven’t noticed you staring at my breasts than you’re sorely mistaken,” she clipped.
The blush that graced Cassian’s cheeks surprised Nesta. Yet, the colour to his face did nothing to erase the promise in his gaze as he dragged his eyes away from her chest. The movement was laboured, as if it took all five hundred years of Cassian’s willpower. “You usually wear a higher neckline,” he observed tightly. “You can hardly blame me for making the most of a rare opportunity.”
Magic whispered through Nesta’s veins—a live energy desperate to be expelled—but Nesta made a show of rolling her eyes. And then, without meaning to, finally dared to broach what they had yet to discuss. “You’ve seen them before.”
A dark cloud passed over Cassian’s expression and his cheeks hollowed. “Once.”
The word came out pained and… remorseful.
The sensation was melancholy on Nesta’s tongue but she did not allow it to affect her. Instead, she allowed a sly smile to tug at her lips, even as her heart wrenched.
Purposefully, she allowed her gaze to flit to his pants, where Nesta could have sworn the material was straining. “If you’re that preoccupied with my breasts, perhaps you should go in search of some female company tonight. Snag yourself an early birthday present.”
Cassian’s chest jerked as he huffed out a snarled breath, but something in his body turned predatory as he stepped closer to her, until their bodies brushed and Nesta had to yield and tilt her head to look up at him.
Hot breath caressed the tip of her ear as Cassian bowed his head to speak in her ear. Nesta hated that her body leant into the touch—that her body wanted whatever he’d give her so desperately that it would deliberately disobey her command to act aloof. “Is that what you want, Nesta?” he asked, his voice rough and uneven and sinful.
It took every ounce of will for Nesta to shrug. For her to step away and climb atop Sala’s back. She ignored the way her blood surged towards him, pressing against her skin like tiny needles. Because she was fed up of being confused and allowing him to have all of the control. “I don’t see why what I want has anything to do with it.”
Lies, lies, lies.
For a moment, Nesta actually thought Cassian might growl. Fists curled at his sides but then he was striding to the edge of the balcony—a sheer drop—spreading his wings wide, ready to launch into the skies and join her in flight. The action was slow and moderated, like a peacock unveiling its feathers, those beautiful wings unfolding until they were so wide they cast a scalloped shadow in the remnants of dusky light.
When Cassian turned to stare at her, his eyes were so impossibly dark Nesta’s breath caught. “It has everything to do with it and you know it.”
Then he launched himself into the air.
***
Feyre and Rhys’s river estate was as beautiful as it had been the first time Nesta had seen it. But this time it did not fill her with a hate so deep that Nesta felt impaled by it. Instead, the ache was dull. Yes, the house represented a life that separated her and Feyre in a definitive way, but Nesta also knew that a bridge spanned that gap. That she could step onto it if she wished to.
Even so, it was hard to banish the thoughts of when Nesta had last been here: with her crumpled stained clothing and the reek of ale seeping from her pores. When her trauma and grief had honed her tongue into a sharp, relentless blade.
If her sister thought the same, she did not give any indication of it. In fact, the smile Feyre loosed for Cassian and Nesta as they touched down onto the grey limestone gravel of the long, sweeping front garden was so genuine that Nesta found herself responding with a tilt of her lips before she realised she’d done it. As usual, her sister was wearing a cream jumper and soft looking leggings, her hair in a loose plait that draped over her shoulder.
Nobody else came to the door, not even Elain, and Nesta was glad for it. She didn’t want an audience—couldn’t deal with being the centre of attention—the circus attraction that she feared she might be. What will the cold, horrible Nesta Archeron do to make a scene tonight? that cloying, satanic voice whispered in her ear. What awful things will she say?
A solid, steady hand spanned Nesta’s back—support—as if Cassian knew that a voice was singing insecurities inside of her head. For a moment, all thoughts of their discussion on the balcony dissipated into nothing, the press of his palm comforting and solid and supportive.
I’ve got you, sweetheart, the touch seemed to say and Nesta lowered her shields, pushing back a feeling of gratitude, surprised when it didn’t bounce off a wall but hit home.
A thumb brushed across her back in reply.
Elain emerged from the kitchen as the three of them stepped into the warmth of the house. Her face was flushed but excited as she kissed Nesta’s cheek and pressed a steaming mug of tea into her hands. “Dinner is ready,” she announced as she peered over Nesta’s shoulder. “No Sala? I wasn’t sure what she ate so I got her some meat from the butchers…”
Her sister trailed off uncertainly and Nesta’s insides roiled at that uncertainty.
“She’s gone exploring,” Nesta told Elain with a small, grateful smile. In truth, Nesta hadn’t wanted to assume that Sala was allowed in the house, even when Cassian had assured her the manticore wouldn’t be a problem.
Without her asking him to, Cassian undid the button of her cloak and teased it from her shoulders. She turned to thank him but his back was already to her as he hung it in a cupboard beneath the stairs.
“She’s welcome in the house,” Rhys called to Nesta. He had been lounging in an armchair by the fire in the living room to the right, but he stood, ready to move into the dining room across the hall. Quickly, Nesta checked her mental shields, but they were in tact—a mighty fortress.
For once, Nesta’s nod of thanks to her sister’s mate was not forced as they headed into the dining room. Most of the space was taken up by a huge polished table, but on the wall opposite the door were huge glass windows that offered a view out onto the garden that wrapped around the house. “Thank you.”
“I hope she does come back,” Mor announced mournfully. The blonde was already seated at the table, as if she was impatient to eat. She poured Cassian a generous glass of wine with a grin. “I didn’t see her earlier.”
“You may as well have just given me the bottle,” Cassian remarked drily, laughing when Mor stuck her middle finger up at him. He sat in the low-backed chair across the table from her—beside Rhys. “And it seems Sala is already a firm favourite. That manticore is going to lose her deadly reputation if she enamours anyone else.”
He grinned wolfishly at Nesta as she rounded the table, but there was no depth to his expression. No indication of what they had discussed on the rooftop, as if he had closed that part of himself off to her—aloof again.
Snorting, Nesta thought of how Sala had roared fire at the cave, roasting males alive. “Looks can be deceptive,” she said simply.
“I’ve heard she’s magnificent.”
Nesta turned to see Amren in the doorway. The petite fae had changed from earlier and was wearing a trouser and top set that shimmered silver. To Nesta’s delight, the grey jewelled earrings sat alluringly atop Amren’s lobes, the moonstone shadow and smoke as it caught the faelight.
“Sit with me,” Amren ordered as she joined Nesta, pulling out two chairs. “Finally I’ll have some company besides this lot arguing and drinking themselves into a stupor.”
Mor made a sound of outrage but Feyre just laughed as her friend went to top up Feyre’s glass, only to find the wine bottle empty. “Amren might have a point.”
“You’ll find I’m never wrong,” Amren responded crisply.
Azriel entered the room, carrying three dishes piled high with food. Immediately, Nesta knew it was he who had sparred with Cassian earlier. He was sporting a rapidly healing cut across his eyebrow, amongst some swelling to his right cheekbone. “Demoted from Shadowsinger to maid. How does it feel?” Cassian asked his brother with mock remorse as Azriel placed the dishes on the table.
The look Shadowsinger shot his brother was nothing short of chilling as he sat beside Nesta. “Perhaps you should have helped rather than sit on your ass.”
“Azriel has a point,” Rhys admitted as Elain entered the room with a dish of potatoes garnished with coriander. He clicked his fingers and plates upon plates of food appeared atop the table, no doubt summoned from the kitchen. “Sorry Elain, it was remiss of us not to help.”
Nesta raised an eyebrow at the Shadowsinger, levelling him with a look as he sat beside her. “And where were you at breakfast?”
The corner of Azriel’s mouth twitched. Shadows thickened around him, whispering into his ears, no doubt reporting from whatever spying errand he had sent them on. “I left early for Illyria,” he replied, but he left no room for Nesta to question whether there had been any movement with Kallon.
Picking up the empty wine bottle, Azriel turned to stare flatly at Mor and then Cassian. “Why is there no wine left?”
Mor winced visibly. She shot Azriel a smile that Nesta thought was supposed to be sweet—that would have enamoured the Shadowsinger a mere few months ago—but there was something strained about it. And Azriel’s shadows… they didn’t lighten. If anything, they became more opaque. “I was overenthusiastic with my pouring efforts,” she confessed.
“See?” Amren muttered to Nesta as Elain took off her apron and sat opposite them. “Idiots, the lot of them.”
Nesta huffed a snort of amusement as she took the plate of lemon-crusted salmon Elain offered to her with a small smile of thanks. “Varian’s not visiting?” she asked Amren.
“He’s coming for Hogmanay.”
“And what is the plan for Hogmanay?” Mor asked, prodding Cassian across the table with her fork.
“Get your dirty utensils off of me,” Cassian scolded.
“I think there’s an inappropriate joke in their somewhere,” Rhys drawled, “but I’m too tired to figure out what it is.”
Mor’s eyes danced. “Tell me there will be dancing. And food. And wine.”
“We should eat at Sarsa,” Azriel interjected. “And then go back up to the House to see the fire ceremony.”
Nesta’s throat turned tight. “What’s the fire ceremony?” she asked curiously. She had spent last Hogmanay in The Horseman with Erol listening to the visiting musicians, drinking too much ale and playing cards. She had fucked a burly male in the bathroom, before taking home another male who she had no recollection of apart from the fact he’d been entirely unsatisfactory between the sheets. She certainly didn’t remember any fire and it wasn’t just because she had drunk herself into oblivion. Hearing even so much as a crackle of flames and burning wood at that point would have led to a near-certain attack of battle fatigue.
As if sensing her unease, Azriel smiled at her. “The ships in the harbour launch explosions of fire across the sky at midnight. It heralds the New Year.”
“The more important question,” Cassian drawled, as if he sensed where Nesta’s mind was, “is which dark-haired male amongst us is going to bring good fortune to each of the houses.”
Mor rolled her eyes. “We usually let you do it because it’s your birthday, but given two years ago that heralded war, perhaps we should give the job to Rhys.”
“I supply the whisky,” Rhys reminded his cousin, “which Cassian usually gets through before the night is half through.”
Cassian’s grin was wolfish but unapologetic.
“Shameless,” Feyre tutted, which only served to make Cassian’s teeth flash more.
“We don’t follow many of the Hogmanay traditions,” Cassian informed Nesta. “But I do insist on being gifted whisky for the duration of the night.”
“If I recall, you woke up naked as the day you were born on the couch last year,” Amren snarked as she picked at her nails. She’d eaten half of her plate but Nesta noticed that she’d taken to pushing around the rest. “I’d ask that we don’t repeat that again, Rhysand. The image is still burnt into my memory.”
“Now, now Amren. I’m sure you still think about it at night,” Cassian winked, and everyone groaned as Amren’s features turned serpentine.
Feyre cut in before Amren could open her mouth. “Perhaps this year you won’t be taken for all your worth at cards,” she told Cassian.
“Azriel cheats,” Cassian muttered.
Rhys’s laugh was as smooth as velvet. “You’ve never beaten Azriel,” Rhys reminded his brother. “Nobody has. So it’s no fault but your own when you start shedding your clothes when you’re out of bargaining chips.”
Cassian waved a siphon clad hand. “Semantics.”
“I didn’t know you knew what that word meant,” Feyre chimed in with a smile that could be described as nothing but mischievous.
Cassian leant back briefly in his chair, his wrists balancing on the edge of the table, his knife and fork pointing to the ceiling. “I’m full of surprises now. I live with a female who spends the majority of her time with her nose buried in books. I’ve picked up a word or two.”
The sigh Mor loosed was dramatic. She passed a plate of buttered green beans down the table. “Thank the Gods for your influence, Nesta. Perhaps now we can all have an intelligent conversation with the general of our armies.”
To Nesta’s surprise, she found her lips twitching upwards. She raised a deliberate eyebrow. Muttered, “I wouldn’t hold your breath.”
At her side, Amren cackled.
“How were the girls today?” Elain asked her sister quietly as conversation began to flow around them. She was cutting into her plate, but when she stole a look up at them, her eyes caught not on Nesta but the Shadowsinger. A faint blush graced her cheeks and she averted her gaze to meet her sister’s.
Pretending not to have noticed, Nesta shrugged. “Settling in as best as can be expected. Maya and her daughters are staying at the House. Ailie won’t go beneath the mountain.”
“We’ll have to find them a residence elsewhere,” Cassian replied gravely from down the table, startling Nesta enough that she snapped her head… Nesta wondered if Mor had informed him or whether it had been Rhys. “Enrol the girls in education. Find Maya some work.”
But Nesta looked to Feyre. “I think the girls would benefit from your art classes.”
All eyes fell on her and Nesta tried not to squirm. Resisted the urge to stop eating and tuck her hands beneath her thighs. In her stomach, she felt an emotion that was not her own—pride.
Delight bloomed over Feyre's face. It was like a rose-coloured dawn. “Of course,” Feyre said. “If they wish to come I’d be glad to have them. In fact, if you wanted you could visit the studio with me tomorrow, I could show you some techniques. I thought they might help Roksana.”
A tense pause followed but Nesta was already fondly picturing Roksana covered in paint, rather than being bothered by the response. Because if Nesta was truly honest with herself, she couldn’t really blame any of them. When she had only offered barbed retorts and snide remarks in the past, why wouldn’t they expect her to snap?
So, Nesta simply nodded. “Ok,” she said. “Thank you.”
Feyre smiled, lovely and true, but then Nesta’s head whipped to Cassian’s as he boomed a laugh. His eyes shone in a way that was so lovely that Nesta’s throat constricted. “We’re going to have a bungalow full of manticore paintings, aren’t we?” he asked Nesta.
The sound of amusement that escaped Nesta was genuine, even if it was a little strangled. “Yes. Or Lorrian and Frawley will.”
The latter was a fair prediction; Roksana had become attached to the couple ever since her stay at the cottage. Was there now, Lorrian and Frawley more than happy to care for her in order to give Mas a break. Roksana loved Caer more than anything, but there was general happiness to the orphan when she was in the vicinity of the cottage and its grounds. She smiled freely as she helped Frawley in the gardens or stirring tonics in the kitchen. But it was in the paddock with Lorrian that she was at her happiest, zooming around the paddock, her wings a blur as she ran rings around the grinning colonel.
Nesta lifted an eyebrow. “I’d say it’s quite likely.”
“Speaking of manticores,” Rhys said as he swirled the wine in his glass. “Sala has come to find you.”
All of them turned to the floor to ceiling windows to find almond eyes gleaming through the glass. They were like sunshine through honey—so mesmerising nobody would dare refute that they weren’t God-given.
Rhys flicked his hand and metal clicked as his magic turned the lock holding the doors closed.
“Clever girl,” Cassian praised, as the manticore stepped through the huge glass doors with feline elegance, tucking in her huge wings until they sat neatly on her back.
But Sala only prowled briefly around the table to Cassian, merely brushing her head noncommittally against his outstretched hand, before she circled around to Nesta’s side of the table. But rather than perch herself at Nesta’s feet, the manticore stopped before Azriel.
The beast promptly plopped herself back on her haunches and looked expectantly up at the Shadowsinger.
Cassian’s mouth fell open in disbelief, gaping at Nesta. And Nesta couldn’t help it—she set down her fork with a clatter and snorted a laugh.
“Clever girl, indeed,” Azriel mused with a quirk of his lips. He loosed a tendril of shadow, allowing it to skitter across the floor so Sala could rake a paw through it. He looked to his brother. “It would appear that I’m more fun than you.”
“Nobody has ever said that before,” Cassian protested indignantly and Nesta could have sworn he was holding back a pout. Yet, his eyes gleamed and for a moment Nesta thought they shone as gold as Sala’s. “Everyone knows I’m the most fun. Azriel is dark and brooding. It’s our brotherly dynamic.”
“A deadly manticore playing with shadows,” Amren tutted at Nesta as she picked out some meat between her teeth with a sharp nail. “Tell me she’s more ferocious than this when you’re in combat.”
Opening her mouth to reply to Amren, Nesta began to turn but Cassian pinned her with narrowed eyes. “Your manticore is a traitor, sweetheart.”
Nesta loosed a shrug and allowed a cruel smirk to play across her lips. That fleeting familiarity was back and she clung to it. “Maybe you’re losing your touch.”
Amren cackled.
“I wish Sala would like me best,” Mor pouted as she poured Feyre another generous glass of wine. “I’m still jealous I don’t have one.”
“You’re an incredibly powerful High Fae,” Rhys drawled. “Life could be worse, Mor.”
But Mor frowned in mock petulance. “But what good is that power if it doesn’t grant me a manticore?”
***
By the time they finished eating, Nesta was full to bursting. It had been a trial to finish dessert—a slice of the blueberry plate pie, Nesta’s favourite—that Elain had brought out proudly from the kitchen. It had no doubt been made with her in mind, and Nesta had made sure to quietly thank her sister as she took the first delicious bite. But now… Nesta’s stomach was groaning painfully and she wished she could let out the seams of her dress or head home to trade in her clothes for a loose nightdress.
Cassian seemed to pick up on Nesta’s discomfort, disappearing from the dining room only to return with a steaming mug of peppermint tea in his hand. Relief had slipped over her bones, but he had only made brief eye contact with her when she had thanked him, before he moved to clean up the plates.
Nesta had stood to help, too, but Rhys had only declared that magic was for washing up and had made every item on the table vanish with a lazy snap of his fingers. So, they had all retired into the living room across the room, which harboured a huge hearth with a roaring fire nestled inside.
Only Mor commented when Nesta didn’t seat herself but moved over to the hearth instead, discreetly flicking her fingers to wreath the flames in silver.
“Pretty,” the blonde said from where she was bent over Sala. She had finally caved and asked Nesta for the permission to pet the manticore, who had lain out her long body to soak in the warmth of the fire.
Nesta didn’t want to discuss her battle trauma, so she only nodded and clutched tightly at her tea. Mor didn’t seem to mind, bowing her head to inform Sala just how silky her ears were instead.
“Can we train tomorrow?” Feyre asked Cassian as he plopped down onto an empty couch.
Her sister was sitting in a deep blue button-back armchair made of chenille. Her feet were propped up on an identical stool, its mahogany feet carved into what looked like paws. She also cradled a mug of tea in her hands.  
“Come at dawn. I’m training Nesta, too,” Cassian replied, as he spread his wings out leisurely behind him, stretching them from the ache Nesta knew resided in them.
He still wasn’t truly looking at her, as if he’d said too much earlier on the balcony and was already regretting it. For some reason it made Nesta bold rather than angry. It made her curious to see what he would do if she closed the distance between them—whether he would feign indifference to her now they were back in Velaris.
She knew Cassian tracked every swish of fabric as Nesta crossed the room and settled down onto the couch beside him. For an almost imperceptible second, Cassian seemed to freeze, but then it was as if he had ordered his body to relax. The wing behind her stretched and curved slightly around her arm of the couch, but Nesta paid it no heed. Blew the steam from her tea. Said, “Think again. I’m not training at dawn.”
Nesta didn’t have to look at Cassian to know his eyes were gleaming with the challenge. His entire body shifted to face her. His arm slipped around to slide across the back of the couch towards her. If he wanted to, he could graze the back of her neck with his fingertips.
Everything in Nesta turned hyper-aware.
“Eight,” Cassian challenged.
Nesta rolled her eyes. “That is dawn. I’ll be at the sparring ring at nine.”
Something akin to a soft snarl emitted from Cassian’s throat, but it lacked any real irritation. In fact, Nesta could tell he was pleased. “Deal,” he agreed. “Will you be joining us, High Lady? We can’t have you getting rusty.”
Uncertainty knitted Feyre’s brow and it took everything in Nesta to swallow the shame of her sister’s hesitation.  
“It will save me from having to talk to Cassian for the whole session if you join us,” Nesta offered to Feyre.
Laughter mingled with Cassian’s cry of outrage. Feyre smile was devilish as she glanced pointedly at Rhys. “I’m always a willing participant in bringing down the ego of an Illyrian baby.”
“So calloused, Feyre darling,” Rhys purred from where he had perched himself on the arm of his mate’s chair. Bent down to kiss the top of her head as Feyre laughed.
The action was so loving it made Nesta’s heart ache. She would never dare deny the purity of the love Feyre and Rhys shared for one another. That was the sort of love Nesta read about in her books—the love Nesta so desperately wanted but didn't believe she deserved.
“I’ll join you,” Azriel said quietly, his voice smooth. “I can go to Illyria after.”
To continue to search for Kallon no doubt. Cassian had informed Nesta that Azriel’s spies had caught word of Kallon’s location in the Northern Steppes, but when Azriel had bled into shadow to find him, the mountain pass had been void of both Kallon and any of his exiled followers. And all the while Marsh grew sicker. It would not be long until Ironcrest had a new Prince.
Cassian’s eyes slid to Mor. She had taken up residence on the floor beside Sala and was still petting the beast’s head. “And you?” he asked as he stretched out his impossibly large legs.
As he spoke, his fingers brushed the nape of Nesta’s neck. It was the slightest of movements but it felt like every nerve ending had sparked into life. Heat coiled inside of Nesta so tight she wanted to shudder. And when he did it again, the movement more purposeful this time, Nesta’s blood throbbed.
It took everything in her to remain looking ahead. For her to sip her tea. To ignore the fact that every single inch of her focus had pinpointed to that feather-light touch and the sudden overwhelming scent of him.
Rhys’s violet eyes flickered in the firelight—like stars winking in the night sky. Nobody else glanced their way. “Mor and I have business tomorrow morning.”
Mor nodded, her loose blonde curls rippling with the movement. “I’ll try and join you afterwards,” she assured Cassian.
But Nesta barely heard her. Only felt the pad of that calloused finger was joined by a thumb as it ran down to the knot of her spine.
She did not move away.
***
Nesta wasn’t sure when she decided that she’d be sleeping in Cassian’s room that night. Perhaps it was whilst she was sat upright in bed, reading a particularly smutty romance by the gilded fae lantern that framed the headboard of her bed. Or perhaps it was when she had begun to wash up and change her clothing for sleep, only to find the nightgown the House had laid out for her—another silk nightdress that shimmered a deep burgundy.
Whatever it was, Nesta only had her shadow for company as she traversed the path to Cassian’s room close to midnight. She had left Sala dozing on her back at the foot of the bed, her paws up in the air and her belly exposed. She hadn’t risen when Nesta had opened the heavy oak door to her bedroom, either too deep in sleep to notice, or smart enough to sense that Nesta did not want company.
The flight back up from the river house to the House of Wind had been quiet save for the wind that whipped through the jewelled sky. When they had landed atop the House, Cassian had looked as if he was about to say something, but in the end he’d only bid her goodnight. Nesta wished she had known what he was going to say. She’d still been vibrating from the scrape of his calloused fingers over the back of her neck—a daring move that had left her stomach twisting and tightening, over and over, until she thought something in her might snap. Even the freezing air on their flight home had done nothing to startle Nesta out of the want and ache of her body. Because that’s what it was—want. What had happened between the sheets the week prior had cut something open inside of Nesta and she couldn’t deny it any longer… this desperate need to be closer to him. For Cassian to touch her and for her to touch him, to revel in the silken feel of skin-on-skin and the rasp of his stubble across her jaw.
And this past week, Nesta had been starved of that—starved of him. Of basic human contact and that connection that bound them deeper than blood. Instead, the two of them had been existing on mixed messages, flitting between Cassian’s casually imposed distance to moments that were so tender and charged that Nesta was always left robbed of breath.
It was the memory of his fingers caressing her skin—the touch a promise—that had Nesta pushing open the door to his room. Soft, buttery light from the hallway spilled across the floor, casting the red stone orange as she stepped inside.
Faelight flickered low in the room, the gentle glow blossoming from the few lanterns that sat atop the bedside tables. Cassian was sitting in bed polishing a knife with a white rag that had seen better days, but his eyes were trained on the door in a way, his fae hearing no doubt alerting him to the pad of her feet as she’d walked down the hall.
But then Cassian’s gaze widened. It snapped downwards to her silk nightgown, scoured the item with an intensity that almost had Nesta wondering if he had the capability to see straight through it. He raked over every inch of the material, from the thin straps over her shoulders to the hem that hung a few inches above her knees.
When he met the bare skin of her legs the claws atop his wings flexed, as if it were akin to a clenching jaw.
“Are you wearing that to torture me?” The words rasped out of Cassian and satisfaction thrummed through her at the pained expression that twisted its way across his face. At the knife and rag which were now held loosely in his hands, completely forgotten.
Nesta made herself huff a snort and roll her eyes even though she wanted to set herself aflame. “The House gave it to me.” She leant back against the door so it snicked shut. The carved wood was cold against her skin. “Why, do you like it?”
Nesta could have sworn Cassian’s hand trembled as he blindly reached across the right of the bed to discard the knife on the nightstand. The entire time he did not break her stare, as if his gaze was stuck permanently on her. When he spoke, his voice was hoarse, “You always look beautiful.”
That emboldened Nesta because she knew he meant it. Her skin prickled as every hair stood on end. “Especially now?”
Those dark eyes grew even more intense, the pupils dilating, pushing out his irises. It deepened the connection between them, branded her somehow, even from across the room. “Especially now.”
Slowly, Nesta walked over to the side of the bed. The silk shifted and crackled as she slid between the sheets.
Cassian tracked every movement, every sway of her hips. The push of her pulse as it struggled to escape out of her skin. The way her hair draped across the pillow as she rolled on her side to look up at him.
But he did not slide down to join her. He stared at her for a moment, gave a slight shake of his head, as if he was banishing some thoughts. “I’m sorry about earlier.”
It was not the words Nesta had been expecting and it took her a moment to scrabble for any sort of understanding through the fog in her memory, because ever since he’d touched her neck that’s all she could think about.
Slowly, it all pieced back together. She remembered Cassian refusing to let her fly down on Sala and following her through the streets when she’s expressly told him to leave her alone.
Nesta let out an unladylike snort. “Which bit?”
Remorse and shame curled around Cassian’s expression like smoke. “I shouldn’t have followed you. I shouldn’t have doubted you.”
“No, you shouldn’t have,” Nesta replied simply after studying him for a moment. “But I understand.”
She shrugged at his surprised look, because she did understand. If the roles had been reversed she knew she would have been struck with terror to know he was heading out into a city that had only fed his self-destructive tendencies. That he might bed someone else, even though she’d dared him to do as much earlier. “But the apology is appreciated. Don’t doubt me again.”
Cassian stared at her a touch too long, but he dipped his chin. “Noted.”
“I’m sorry, too.”
Cassian’s eyes widened and shame struck through Nesta. Had she ever truly apologised for how she treated him? Regardless of what he had done to her, she had said cruel things that were inexcusable and she would not fail to account for them. Not this time.
A faint smile whispered across Cassian’s features, lifting the frown from his face. “Which bit?”
Nesta snorted again. “I was short with you.”
“The apology is appreciated,” Cassian echoed, but he leant down towards her, folding his body as if he was about to spill a secret, his voice a rolling purr in her ear, “But I like your bite, Nesta.”
Nesta swallowed so hard that her chest bobbed. Cassian’s hair was loose and the strands tickled her face as he withdrew slightly. But he was not studying her face but somewhere else entirely, as if his eyes had betrayed his will, magnetised to the swell of her cleavage.
A flush of heat waved over Nesta’s body, running from her face all the way down her torso until it hit between her legs, where it stayed, flaring and twisting knots. She knew Cassian smelt it from the way his wings rustled behind him and he suddenly became very still—so still Nesta couldn’t even feel the fan of his breath on her skin.
“Do you want to touch me?”
They were such bold words given how unsure Nesta was about where they stood. But the scent of his arousal mingling with hers—that heady, thicker scent—wound around them. The same scent that had curled around her earlier, but more intense—heavier, somehow.
Cassian’s throat bobbed and his thick lashes fanned upwards as he begrudgingly dragged his eyes away from the low cut hemline of her nightgown. Her heart thudded as their gaze locked into place. “You know I do.”
Nesta didn’t know that. Hadn’t known it all week.
She raised a hand and ran it over the side of his upper arm, feeling the muscles and scar-flecked tissue beneath her palms. Cassian’s eyes rippled like seas of amber and ebony but he did not move. Only remained unnervingly still. “Do you want to kiss me?”
Heat lanced through her at the prospect of his mouth on hers and Cassian groaned as if he had sensed it as well. “Yes,” he said roughly.
Slowly, Nesta curled her hand up over his shoulder, until her fingers were curving around the nape of his neck. Cassian shuddered at the contact, as she played with the fine, soft hair at the base of his spine, caressing the exact place he had toyed with earlier, but on her. “Do it then,” she breathed.
That was all it took. One moment they were apart and the next they were together. There were no brushed kisses or hesitant phantom touches. Cassian’s mouth was perfectly claiming, fusing with hers as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Because that’s what it was—natural, divine, prophetic—they were the only words Nesta could summon in her brain to describe what kissing Cassian was like. They moved as one, every touch dizzying and sure and right.
And whilst they had done this before this was better. There was no traumatic fog clouding Nesta’s experience. She wasn’t doing this as a method to feel but because she was alive and present. In this moment, Nesta could admit that she wanted Cassian—had wanted him from the second she had set eyes on him that fated day across the wall and never stopped, not once.
Together they moved, until Nesta was on her back and Cassian was leaning over her, his mouth slanted on hers, the delicious stroke of his tongue stoking that fire within her until Nesta thought she might be wreathed in silver. When Nesta wrapped her fingers in the cables of Cassian’s hair and tugged at the roots, urging him for more, he groaned into her mouth, and Nesta pressed her body into his in a bid to relieve the tension that was running through her, taut as a bow string.
A large hand came to span her waist, steadying her, but the touch was only a torturous, unmoving weight through the silk of her nightgown. She half-moaned, half-whined in frustration, rolling their bodies until they were on their sides. Her leg latched around his hip, pulling him to her, aligning their bodies before Cassian could stop her.
A guttural groan coursed through Cassian’s chest—through her—as the centre of her met the undeniably hard length of him. He bucked into her and Cassian panted a curse into her mouth, a sound that only fuelled her as they began to roll, partaking in a dance that only they knew as she tried to ride out the pleasure that hummed through her.
Hissing, Cassian’s hands flew down to her hips, but Nesta didn’t want him to stop what she’d wanted last time—to feel him in her palm, to watch him come undone again and again. So, she summoned all of her strength until he was on her back and she was straddling his hips, their mouths still fused together, even as her hand wandered down between their bodies.
Nesta traced warm skin and chiseled lines with her fingers, until she was met with a fine trail of ebony hair, the material of those low-slung pants and the straining, generous line of him.
Cassian’s hips jerked when she ghosted over him and Nesta felt the destruction in his moan in every corner of her body. Like oil to a fire, the sound only spurred her on and her touch became firmer, working him through the material, spurned on by the deep-throated sounds that vibrated through the air around them.
“Gods, Nesta—” Cassian rasped, tearing his mouth away from hers, only to lean up and bury his face in her neck. She palmed him through his pants again and Cassian’s response was to scrape his teeth over the pulse point in her throat—an involuntary movement—where life fluttered beneath his taunting, raking touch.
Nesta couldn't take it anymore. She needed to touch him so badly that her fingers blindly fumbled with the rope built into the waistband, pulling and tugging at the ends until they finally spilled undone.
She let out a moan of satisfaction, diving to dip her fingers underneath the material, to finally touch him—
Cassian’s hand grappled for hers, and even though they trembled he held on firm. “Not here, Nesta. I don’t—just not here.”
The raw, panicked edge to his words was like a slap to the face. Embarrassment licked up Nesta’s skin and that feral beast inside of her roared at the rejection. As he finally gave voice to what she had suspected all week.
“If you don’t want me, stop being a coward and say so,” she snapped. She wrenched away from him, sitting back on her knees.
The laugh that came out of Cassian was as rough as sandpaper. It grated against the anger that had swarmed inside of her. His pupils were still blown impossibly wide. Staring into them made Nesta want to shiver, so she looked away. “You think I don’t want you? Did I not just confess that I did?”
He had, but Nesta could also remember his careful distance. Cassian had rendered every sexual experience Nesta had ever had as inconsequential with a few strokes of his tongue between her legs, but he hadn’t let her touch him. Had expressly stopped her. The demons that resided in Nesta’s brain hadn’t stopped plaguing her about it since, hissing that Cassian had only pleasured her out of pity—that he hadn’t wanted to be with her it at all.
Hot burning tears threatened to spill down Nesta’s face and shame coiled inside of her as her body betrayed how much she cared. Desperately, she looked away, trying in vain to hold them back.
Another biting laugh shook through her, but the sound was a stark contrast to the gentle touch of Cassian’s thumbs as he swiped them over her cheeks—as if he had anticipated that he’d have to brush something away.
“Nesta,” he implored, and his voice was broken and… disbelieving. “I want you more than I’ve ever wanted anybody. I just—I can’t bed you properly here. There’s no privacy.”
But Nesta was not a fool. She scowled, thinking back on how he’d rebuffed her time and time again since she’d shared his bed. He’d made her promise she wouldn’t shut him out, but at times his distance from her over the past week had made her feel so cold and empty she’d wanted to sob.
A deathly scowl contorted her features. “You’ve been off with me.”
But Cassian did not cower. He only held her gaze as he brought her fingers to his lips—pressed a kiss there. The touch was tender, like an apology, even as he confirmed, “Yes.”
It was enough to spark her into movement. Nesta wouldn’t be made a fool out of, not like this.
Hands flew to her waist, gripping her firmly before she could make to scramble off the bed. Those ridiculously large hands spanned not only her hips, but the crease in her thighs, the underside of her backside, and she could feel his callouses on her skin from where her satin nightdress had hiked up.
Cassian’s hold on her was strong yet it didn’t hurt. If Nesta really wanted to she could get free. He’d let her, too. Nesta knew that with unwavering certainty. “Stop, Nesta. Listen. Please.”
There was a desperate edge to his voice that had Nesta meeting his dark eyes. She blinked away the tears that threatened to spill water and salt. They blurred her vision and coated her eyelashes. Again, those thumbs wiped them dry, Cassian’s touch gentle over her eyelids.
“I don’t regret that night, it’s just—I’ve wanted you so badly this past week I was worried I wouldn’t be able to control myself,” Cassian confessed hoarsely.
Nesta’s eyebrows shot up so high she was surprised they didn’t disappear into her hairline. Her instinct was to snap and become as vicious as a viper, but she made herself stop. Bit down on the urge. She only tilted her head and challenged, “Are you lying?”
Cassian’s expression twisted into something like pain. “I don’t lie to you. Tasting you has cracked something open in me and I can’t—I want you all the time.”
Breathing became difficult. Nesta’s skin felt too tight over her bones and she was molten—pure liquid—even as she scoured his beautiful, rough-hewn face. “You’d never hurt me.”
“I never want to,” Cassian corrected. “I said you could decide how you wanted things to go. I wasn’t going to take that choice from you.”
Something bold grew inside of Nesta. It had something to do with the honesty that lined her stomach—his every word. “You said you’d taste me again.”
A growl vibrated along the column of Cassian’s throat and his pupils darkened with such sexual promise, Nesta shivered. “I shouldn’t have let that slip. Being that close to you—I’ve been going mad, sweetheart. You must have noticed.”
Nesta had noticed that something was off. She’d flitted between thinking he regretted it to clocking what she could have sworn was arousal in his eyes. Nesta thought back to how he’d stiffened when she’d sat beside him at the river house. How his wing had instinctively curved around her and later, how his fingers had brushed the nape of her neck. Had he been battling with himself the entire time? Had his resolve finally snapped, unable to stop himself from finally touching her, even in a room full of his family members?
Public affection was uncharacteristic for Cassian. Not because he wasn’t built that way but because she wasn’t.
Nesta thought she might be changing on that front. Would do anything to have him touch her neck like that again.
Suddenly bold, Nesta asked, “You want me?”
Cassian’s nostrils flared. Beneath her, his hips pushed up into hers and her breath hitched at the hard length of him that the thin material of his pants did nothing to hide. “What do you think?”
Nesta leant over his body, careful to avoid his splayed wings as she bracketed his head with her hands. When she pressed a kiss to his neck, right over his hammering pulse, Cassian stilled before everything in him shuddered. So, she placed another kiss to his skin along his jawline, then another and another, until her lips were inches from his. “I think you should let me touch you,” she whispered.
One hand moved from her hip to her scalp, his fingers winding through her unbound hair.
A tortured sound escaped him. “Nesta—”
“I want to,” she breathed, just as she brushed her lips over his, so lightly it was merely a ghost of a touch. “I like it.”
I like touching you. Let me touch you. Please.
A raw, ragged moan tore from Cassian’s throat. “Others will be able to scent it. Tomorrow—it won’t go away. That’s also why I was keeping my distance—”
“I don’t care.”
Cassian’s nostrils flared at the stark clarity of her words and those wings flexed beneath him. “You might tomorrow.”
Nesta straightened her arms so she was hovering over him, her hair a blanket of golden brown. Her brows knitted in irritation. “I said I don’t care.”
“But—”
Frustration thrummed through her and Nesta’s power moved within her veins, but rather than sitting back on her heels she grabbed at his wrists, pinning them to the pillow.
Ensnaring those dark, promising eyes with unwavering defiance, she told Cassian, “I know what it means.”
There was a pause as Cassian searched her expression. “And what does this mean?”
Nesta looked away for a moment—tracked the way the curtains fluttered in the breeze that filtered through the cracked window and gazed out at the humped backs of the mighty mountains in the distance. She knew there was a reason why this shouldn’t happen, but right now, straddling Cassian’s lap with the warmth of his skin against her fingertips, she couldn’t for the life of her recall why. Life didn’t seem shadowy and dark but full of hope and light. So, she said truthfully, “I don’t know.”
Cassian’s gaze sharpened. The old Nesta would have flinched and ran from what she saw lurking in the depths, but Nesta didn’t want to do that either. She wanted to be here with him and remember what it felt like to touch him—to connect with him on a level that was something more.
“I like being in Illyria. I like being with you,” she told him, needing him to know that. Because she could allow herself this moment. It didn’t seal her fate. It didn’t define her. Or them.
For a second, shadows passed over Cassian’s hazel irises—conflict. But Cassian dismissed it with a hoarse, “Good enough.”
And then he leant up to kiss her.
Nesta yielded to Cassian completely, her hands winding through his hair. When her nails scraped against his scalp, a sound rumbled from Cassian’s chest that sounded unmistakably like a purr.
But Nesta barely registered it. Could only concentrate on the press of his lips and the brush of his tongue, which sent every thought eddying from her mind, every building stroke stoking a fire within her. She moaned as that pleasure built, as every ounce of her became utterly enthralled with the touch and taste of him. Because Nesta had known ever since she had fallen into his bed last week that kissing Cassian felt right. It was like a lock clicking into place, turning something over inside of her, uncovering something so vital that Nesta almost whined when he tore his mouth from hers, hoisting them up with that insane strength of his so he was propped up on a splayed hand.
The movement fused them closer together, aligning their bodies and Nesta whimpered into his mouth as she clutched desperately at his shoulders for purchase, even as his arm wound protectively around her back to steady her.
Instinct took over any thought of pre-meditated movement and Nesta ground down onto the hard length of him through his pants.
Cassian’s snarl whipped around the night-infused room and then their motions were no longer rhythmic and tantric but claiming and fuelled with a purpose Nesta had never felt before with any of her bedding partners; tongues and teeth, panted breaths and frenzied touches.
Her body arched before Cassian asked for it, moved before he lunged for her. She bared her neck to him and Cassian’s growl of approval shot straight to her core as his teeth sunk into her flesh. He nipped and sucked and licked, tracking an intentional path to her clavicle where the pyrite glittered against her chest.  
When his tongue swiped over the hollow of her collarbone, Nesta shuddered and she clutched at his head, keeping him there.
“Promise me that things won’t be cold between us,” she panted, repeating his words from before.
Nesta allowed him to kiss back the way he’d come, speech squeezed from her lungs as she gasped and moaned as his stubble scraped against her sensitive flesh. By the time his mouth found hers again, his teeth tugging at her lower lip, Nesta thought she might well be nothing but a pool of skin, her bones melted away.
Beneath that pounding, pulsing desire—beneath the roar in her blood as her magic surged, clambering to be closer to him, to be nearer—Nesta felt a pang wrangle its way down that tether.
Cassian made a point of pulling back from her. Cupped her cheek with his hand. “Things won’t be cold between us,” he rasped, but sincerity shone in his eyes. “We can—whatever you want, Nesta.”
His voice cracked at the concession and suddenly he looked so devastated that Nesta bowed her head to kiss him again. When they parted, Cassian was panting as hard as she was and his lips were swollen, his wings high but tucked in tight, as if to spread them would only weigh against him.
There was a moment when their gazes locked and something shifted in Cassian’s expression, uncertainty replaced with that cock-sure male—pure predator. Just the change in him had another rush of heat pooling southwards and Nesta tightened her grip on his shoulder, tilting her hips into his, needing the friction. Needing more, more, more.
“One condition,” Cassian murmured, as if he knew just how much she needed his touch but was playing a game in denying her. He tilted his head to nip at the underline of her jaw as she bit back a whine of frustration. At the column of her throat.
Anything. She’d give him anything. Would let him do anything, but Nesta couldn’t form words. Could only focus on that sinful, talented mouth. So, she half-moaned, half-hummed an imploring, “Mmm.”
“I want to be inside you,” Cassian said and just those words had Nesta whimpering, what was left of that carefully poised control fading away as if it was nothing but embers being tossed away on a wind. She ground down onto him again and the hand at her back slipped to her ass, digging and gripping as his hips undulated upwards into hers.
Somehow—impossibly—Cassian’s voice deepened, “But not until we’re back home where we can have each other wherever we want for as long as we want.”
At this point Nesta didn’t care. All she cared about was that she got to touch him. Her hands slid from his hair to his broad shoulders and muscled arms. To his chiselled abdomen and the fine trail of hair that dipped from his belly button to below the waistband of his pants.
“Ok,” she breathed, scrambling for the words but somehow managing to get them out in a way that was half-composed. Whatever you want. Whenever you want. “Ok,” she repeated, too preoccupied with relishing the heat of his skin beneath her fingertips. How every muscle tensed and twitched beneath her touch.
Stilling her hands, she splayed a palm on his chest, right over his hammering heart. Cassian stilled completely—forever at her mercy. Just one word and he’d stop things, she knew that. She leant forwards, brushed her lips over the curve of his ear, and whispered, “But I get to touch you now.”
A guttural groan vibrated from Cassian as he tilted his head backwards in defeat. It exposed the knot of his throat as it worked. “You’re going to be the death of me, sweetheart,” he rasped.
And to Nesta’s surprise, she laughed. The sound made Cassian’s head snap back up, his eyes slightly wide in both astonishment and awe and Nesta realised this might be the first time she’d truly laughed in front of him. It was not a huff of breath or stifled by a snort. It was a true sound. Loud and free.
“Witch,” Cassian said hoarsely, but he smiled with a fondness that made Nesta’s ache. Slid his palm up and over the side of her cheek so he could hold back the curtain of hair that had fallen across her face.
The following grin Nesta shot him was sultry and she allowed her magic to whisper across her irises, metallic liquid smoke.
“Beautiful,” Cassian whispered, his own eyes wide and all-seeing.
Nesta did not miss the way his body seemed to tremble, as if everything in him was surging towards her. Not just his body, but his blood—a magnetism that wanted them to fuse together. To be one.
The siphons on the backs of his hands glowed and pulsed.
It seemed to remind Cassian that he was still wearing them and he all but tore them from his hands, tossing them far away onto the sheets.
Then, his attention was wholly back on her.
“For the love of the Mother, take this off,” Cassian pleaded. His hands tugged at the bottom of her nightgown where it had bunched up around her waist. Soon the garment was fluttering to the ground or somewhere on the bed, Nesta didn’t know, didn’t care as she saw the sharp, greedy hunger in his stare.
But Nesta anticipated what he was going to do before Cassian even had the chance to move. She wrapped a hand in his hair before he could catch a nipple between his lips, tugged gently at the roots.
The low, keening sound that came out of Cassian was one of torture.
“It’s my turn,” Nesta admonished, even as her body screamed at her for denying herself the attention.
To her surprise, Cassian obeyed, a military skill no doubt drummed into him from an early age. But as her hand slipped downwards, past the chiselled muscles in her chest towards the waistband of his pants, his body seemed to vibrate with anticipation, as if his mind could not control its base reaction to her touch.
When she eased the material of his pants down and over his hips, Nesta had to school her expression into neutrality. She supposed she shouldn’t have expected anything else—she had felt him through his pants after all—but seeing the size of him with no barrier made a strangled, desperate noise emit itself from her chest before she could stop it.
Her fingers brushed against him and the air around them seemed to hush. Even the wind outside that usually ravaged the mountain peaks fell silent, as if they had sucked in a breath.
Nesta’s eyes flicked her gaze up to Cassian’s face, certain that he’d be wearing a smug expression or be ready to purr something clever, but he was not looking at her at all. Instead, his eyes were fixated on her hand, his jaw frozen slack as she loosely wrapped her fingers around him and ghosted up the length. Cassian’s breath hitched, his chest heaving. Every muscle in his body was pulled taut and Nesta could tell he was waiting for more—was so desperate for it he was shaking. She squeezed harder on her next pass over him and he hissed, the sound slithering over her skin until she was smattered with goosebumps.
But Nesta didn’t want him like this. She didn’t want him quiet and collected. She wanted to make it so good for him that he forgot who he was and where he was, just as he’d done for her the week before.
So, she tightened her fist until she felt every ridge of him. And when she passed her hand up him this time Cassian swore, his hips bucking off of the bed, but Nesta gripped him tightly with her thighs, twisting her hand and passing her palm over his head.
Delight washed over her, her grin feline as she asked, “Is that good?”
“Fucking incredible,” Cassian panted. “You are fucking incredible. Do that—”
Nesta didn’t wait for him to finish, she knew what he needed, setting a rhythm that squeezed and twisted and rubbed until he was swearing and writhing beneath her.
“Let me touch you,” Cassian begged against her mouth as Nesta slid her thumb over the slit of him, gathering up the beaded moisture so her movements became slicker.
Cassian’s groan was like a forked lighting of pleasure through her body but Nesta ignored him.  
“Nesta,” he tried again. “I need to touch you. Let me—“
“No.”
A snarl of desperation. “Nesta.”
Then his hand had yanked itself free of her grasp, his resolve to obey her command clearly shattered as she increased the pace. Nesta didn’t have it in her to hiss at him or even stop him as he captured a nipple in his mouth, his teeth grazing and tugging, his tongue laving.
Nesta cried out at the contact and she fell forward, burying the sound in the slope of his shoulder as an arm wound itself around his neck.
“It’s my birthday soon,” Cassian groaned around her. He scraped his teeth over the peak and then sucked it sharply into his mouth. Nesta’s groan was completely unchecked but she could not bring herself to care. “Does that not mean I get what I want?”
Nesta meant to huff but it turned into a guttural moan as calloused fingers traced a line down her lower stomach. She wasn’t sure where she found the strength to catch his hand, but she managed it. “No.”
One slick movement had Nesta on her back and Cassian half-knelt half-leant between her legs, his chest bowed over her body as his mouth fastened to her neck. “But I’m very good,” Cassian rasped.
He followed the words with the rake of his teeth over her throat for emphasis. With anyone else Nesta would have felt vulnerable—like an animal ensnared between the teeth of a predator—but her body arched into the touch, opening herself up to him, wanting him to mark her. To claim her where everyone could see it.
She knew how talented Cassian was in the bedroom. Did not need to be reminded of how he’d fractured her entire world and reframed it in a way that was wholly new. He was an epiphany. Enlightenment. But she couldn’t—wouldn’t—give him the satisfaction of admitting that. “You’re an arrogant bat,” was all she said, but it came out breathy—uncollected.
“A very talented arrogant bat,” Cassian corrected and kissed her.
“It’s supposed to be your turn,” Nesta panted when he pulled away. And using the only thing she had in her arsenal, she tightened her grip around him, curving her palm over the head when she reached the tip.
Cassian groaned against her lips. Bucked into her hand.
“You feel so good,” Nesta moaned. She hadn’t said it just to scrabble back for control, but because she meant it. She wanted him in her mouth. Inside of her so badly the ache became unbearable.
“It can be both of our turn,” he vowed, his words rough and unhinged. “If I don’t touch you I’ll go mad.”
And finally—finally—Nesta felt his desperation lining her stomach. It was so stark it robbed her of her most vital function, her breath trapped in her lungs. Light rushed towards dark, a wave of ruby crashing against a fortress, the force of it driving it up against that blockage of ice. It slipped easily through the cracks… But it was not cold but warm—comforting and honest and kind.
It was that which snapped all sense of Nesta’s control. She needed him to touch her. Needed him to fill her. Needed—
“Touch me,” she managed to gasp and that was all it took.
The first slide of his fingers between her legs had Nesta whining and Cassian shuddering in pleasure. “So wet,” he growled. “Are you always this wet for me?”
Nesta couldn’t say yes. Couldn’t tell him that she’d touched herself again and again since she’d shared his bed, desperate to chase the mind-blowing pleasure he had granted her. The pleasure that had left her whole and spineless and calm. So, she just moved her hand faster on him, sliding it upwards, twisting at the tip, rubbing her thumb up the vein of him until he hissed with pleasure.
Satisfaction wound through her as his brow twisted and his breath stuttered.
When Cassian slid a second finger inside of her and curved upwards, Nesta mewled, her back bowing off the bed.  “Fuck, you’re so tight around my fingers, Nesta,” Cassian grunted. He withdrew them, ran them upwards, drew some slow, taunting circles, before he pushed them back inside of her again.
Nesta lost all coherent thought. Forgot who she was and where she was. Only concentrated on the feel of him and how her skin was stretching too tight, how a band within her was going to snap at any moment.
Cassian lowered his mouth to hers and it was a relief to taste him again, to give over to the insistent brush of his tongue as his fingers drew the same path, again and again, the plunging of his fingers deep inside of her a contrast to the almost gentle touch at the apex between her thighs. It felt like the pull of the tide, insistent and then quiet, and Nesta found her matching his pace without meaning to.
When Cassian pulled away, he was staring at her with an intensity that Nesta would have described as intense devastation, as if he was trying his best to imprint her expression into his memory. As if he thought their interaction was a fleeting moment and he was desperate to hold onto it.
Nesta tried to speak—to tell him that she wasn’t going to disappear, that she couldn’t even if she wanted to—but nothing but a high-pitched whimper whined from her lungs as he pressed down harder, increasing the friction to match the insistent rock of her hips.
Release gathered like a shimmering vale. It called to Nesta, her name chanted again and again, but for the first time in her life she pushed it away. Focussed instead on tightening her grip on him, built up a punishing rhythm that she knew would have Cassian bucking into her hand as he hurtled towards some sort of relief.
Cassian swore. It was a warning but Nesta did not intend to stop. “Sweetheart,” he gasped, desperately bending to kiss her, as if by doing so he’d fuse them together. Nesta yielded to the demand of his lips, moved her hand faster on him, chased that wave he desperately needed to crest. Cassian tore his mouth from her, panting a please to the Gods. His dark brow creased, everything in him tensing, as it built, built, built—
“Sweetheart, I’m going to—“
He didn’t have time to finish his sentence. His hips jerked and the sound that keened from Cassian was not fae but beast as his release spilled hot, over and over again, until her stomach and chest was slick with it.
Nesta moaned at the utter destruction on his face—recognised it as if she was seeing in a mirror. Knew that was how she had looked when he’d changed her world.
Slowly, Nesta rose a hand to his face. Cassian turned into her touch as if he were a plant bending towards the light. He pressed a thankful kiss to the heart of her palm—then another one and another one, before he collapsed onto his elbows, his forehead resting against hers as he shuddered. Ebony hair fell in a tangled curtain and Nesta raked it back from his face with her free hand.
“Gods,” was all Cassian rasped eventually. He couldn’t seem to find words, because he only repeated, “Gods, Nesta. Sorry—”
“Consider it an early birthday present,” Nesta panted from where she lay beneath him. And even though release was coiled inside of her, desperate to break free of its confinement and shatter her world, Nesta felt more content than she’d ever been.
Lifting his head, Cassian barked a disbelieving laugh. And then he was backing off of her, sitting back on his knees and covering his eyes with shaking hands.
Nesta watched him. Tracked the golden skin cut with muscle and scars and ink. The bulge of his biceps. The twin peaks of his wings and the claws that adorned them.
When he finally removed his hands, his eyes snagged on her chest—the release that was branding her skin. His wings spread behind him and his cock twitched, hardening.
Cassian seemed to flush at the same time that everything in him became more focussed—pointed. And then to her dismay he was moving off of the mattress, his wings balancing him as he disappeared into the bathroom.
He came back with two wet towels and before she could protest, he was gently swiping it over her marked skin.
“I’ve made a mess of you,” he apologised.
Nesta shrugged and a knowing smile tugged at her lips—it was taunting yet soft, somehow, as if someone had brushed over her usual thorns. “I like it. And you’re not sorry.”
She reached for him, tugging at his wrist until he was over her again, his hands framing her face. This time, Cassian did not tuck in his wings. Instead, his claws curled around the bed frame, creating a canopy of umber and burnt orange—a smoky sunset.
Cassian scanned her face intently, as if he was searching for something. “I’m not sorry,” he confirmed, his voice low and husky. “Are you?”
Nesta huffed a snort and held his dark gaze. Let him see just how much she wanted him. “I’m not sorry.”
When she wound her fingers into his hair, he sighed and he watched her as she leant up to close the distance between them.
Gently, she passed her mouth over his. It was a brush really. A whisper of a kiss. Tender and less frenzied, even though heat still channelled through Nesta, narrowing to that ache that craved for his touch.
Cassian murmured her name. It sounded sacred on his lips, but it was a promise, too. His tongue brushed hers, opening up her mouth to him and Nesta’s spine bowed until her body was pressed flush against him, craving the warmth of his skin.
The mattress shifted beneath them as Cassian neared his weight on one arm so he could free a hand to run up and down her side. When he grazed her breast Nesta’s moan was brazen and so unlike her she would have usually hated herself. But she only curled her legs around his waist, buried her fingers more intently in the sable strands of his hair.
Cassian groaned into her mouth. It was a languid sound, as if everything had previously been spooled too tight for him but his release had loosed it free. But his next kiss was purposeful and thorough, his fingers cupping and squeezing and rubbing until Nesta core was burning with a desperation that her releasing a desperate sob. Of all her times with other males, never had Nesta been so close to release with a few touches. Never had she been so ready for it, her body primed for his touch and the denial… it was torture.
Magic channelled through her blood, pushing at her skin, as if the built up tension had it straining to get free. Silver began to mist at her fingers and Cassian growled, sensing it somehow. Nesta could have sworn she felt him harden further against her thigh as he untangled a hand from his hair, pressed a kiss to the tip of each fire-wreathed finger, completely unafraid. Completely trusting that she would control the temperature so it would not burn.
When he lifted his eyes to meets hers, they shone. “Now, I believe I promised something didn’t I?”
A shiver ran down Nesta’s skin like a wave. Her toes curled, her body arched and even she heard her frantic heartbeat echoing against his own. But Cassian only bowed his head to scrape her teeth over her pulse, nipped at the skin, licked over the pain with a broad swipe of his tongue—like an animal rectifying a wound.
“Another early birthday present for me,” Cassian murmured, laving his tongue over her pulse. Nesta’s breath caught and her fingers found purchase back in his hair. “What do you think, sweetheart?”
Nesta didn’t intend to reply or make a sound—was too proud to convey just how much she was at his whim—but a soft moan tore out of her.
“What do you think?” Cassian asked again, and Nesta knew he needed her consent—to know that she wanted this.
“I—please,” she panted.
“So polite today,” Cassian mused with a smile, but it was pleased rather than mocking as he began to move down her body. He captured each nipple between his lips, sucking and nipping until she was writhing, finally giving them the attention he’d no doubt been thinking about since they’d met before dinner. “Perhaps it should be my birthday more often.”
An admonishing hiss tore from Nesta’s throat as Cassian blew across each nipple. The sharp air shocked them into almost painful peaks. The ache was unbearable, but Cassian only snickered softly to indicate he knew exactly what it did to her, before he slid down onto his stomach between her legs.
Only once he’d snagged her gaze with his dark eyes did he lower his mouth.
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duskandstarlight · 3 months ago
Text
Embers & Light (Chapter 35)
Notes: Thank you to everyone who has been sending me some amazing prompts for E&L over the last few weeks. Incredibly, some of you just seemed to read my mind, so I’ve ticked off quite a few:
Jealous Cassian (of Azriel)
Jealous Nesta (@moodymelanist--I have had this written for maybe 5 months?!)
Nesta & Rhys training
I plan to try and update in two weeks time (16 May) but it all depends on how busy work gets :)
In the meantime, please send me any prompt ideas you have. I can’t promise I’ll write them but some of them will definitely feature in some capacity.
I hope you enjoy it! I loveedddddd writing this chapter so much. Like SO MUCH.  Lastly. if you enjoy reading this please, please, please reblog. It helps reach more people and I’d so appreciate it--thank you!
Chapter Thirty-Five Cassian
“I get to have two Archeron sisters this morning.” Cassian grinned wolfishly as he stood atop the sparring rings of the House of Wind with Azriel. “Who knew I’d be so lucky.”
Beside him, Cassian Azriel loosed a barely audible groan on an outward sigh. Together they stood in the sparring rings beside a fully loaded weapon’s rack. Ahead of them, by the arched walls of the House of Wind, Nesta and Feyre had emerged from the stairwell, climbing the last of the stairs with Sala at their heels.
The moment Cassian’s eyes had locked with Nesta’s the words had spewed forth before he could check them. Fuck, was he nervous or had the simple sight of her stoked a cauldron of roiling jealousy and desire inside of him?
Fighting the urge to fling his wings out wide, Cassian tucked in his wings tight to his spine. Allowed his imagination to run away with the thought of launching himself at Nesta and flying them down to his room where he could tear off her leathers and sink his teeth into her neck.
Azriel’s lips quirked upward with enough amusement that his shadows momentarily lightened. Feyre’s eyes widened slightly as a gust of wind spiralled around the sparring ring, no doubt intensifying he and Nesta’s scent. His brother’s mate had enough sense to do what Cassian hadn’t done—keep her mouth shut—but there was a knowing shadow in her irises that told Cassian she had put two and two together.
If Nesta knew what had just happened, she didn’t give any indication. Instead, she snorted with a displeasure he did not feel down that tether as she floated towards them on those lithe and strong legs that had wrapped around his head the night before. “Obvious and predictable,” she scolded, but the ire in her voice was not poisonous. She even held Cassian’s gaze. “I’ll spar with Azriel.”
Cassian didn’t let his smile falter, even though disappointment and… jealousy struck him hard. His eyes narrowed against his will and he folded his arms firmly over his chest. Allowed his muscles to flex in a movement that he knew Nesta would clock. Pathetic. So fucking pathetic. “Azriel has places to be.”
It was true. News had come that morning that Marsh had passed. Azriel had knocked on Cassian’s door in the early hours before dawn, summoning him from the woolly depths of sleep and the warmth of Nesta, who was tucked firmly against his side thanks to his curved wing.
The sharp rap against the door had Cassian snapping upright, his fingers already curling around the knife beneath his pillow, before his drowsy senses caught up with him and he realised that an intruder would not knock or call his name. That they would slip into his room and slit his throat before he could even blink.
And Cassian should have pulled on his pants and stumbled towards the door, but he hadn’t. He had turned to Nesta who was wide awake, her fingers wreathed in silver, her eyes too round and glowing like metallic moonlight.
“It’s Azriel,” Cassian had assured her, pressing his mouth to her fire-wreathed fingers until they flickered out as if they had been kissed by the wind. He could hear her heartbeat in his ears, the pound of her blood, the quickening of her breath. She had been taken in the night before. Those Hybern bastards had kidnapped her. “You’re safe.”
Cassian had slipped outside to find Azriel leaning against the opposite wall, his arms crossed and a brow raised. The Shadowsinger had not commented as Sala slinked into Cassian’s room from where she had been camped out in the hallway and hopped onto the bed, where he’d left Nesta tangled in the sheets.
The aggressive growl that loosed itself from low in Cassian’s throat was not something he was proud of, but it had kept Azriel’s shadows firmly around his brother’s shoulders and face where they belonged, rather than spying into others business.
As usual, Azriel had barely reacted. Had only levelled his brother with what Cassian dissected as a cautious look, as a sleepy Nesta padded out of the bedroom moments later and demanded to know what was going on.
The regal stubbornness to her expression had been one of the most endearing things Cassian had ever seen, especially with her mussed hair and with her entire body scenting of… well, him—them. And that pressure in his chest had only soared when she had curled her fingers around his bicep, fastening herself to him, the gesture so casual but everything at the same time as Azriel detailed that Marsh had died and that they should join him at the river house once they had changed.
It had been a subtle slice of time to allow them to quickly bathe. To wash away the surface scent of the night before—not that it made a huge amount of difference. Even Cassian noticed the way in which Nesta’s scent curled around his own, like a thick and delicious cream stirred through a sauce. How he could still taste her on his tongue, smoky and sweet.
Shrugging, Azriel plucked a pair of sparring pads from the weapon’s rack with puckered hands. “My spies are stationed where they need to be. I can stay an hour before I head back to Illyria to get an update.” He handed Nesta some black boxing wraps. “I assume you don’t need my help in putting these on?”
Feyre arched an eyebrow at Cassian. “Looks like you’re stuck with your second favourite student,” she quipped, as they both watched Azriel and Nesta step into the training ring that flanked the rise and fall of the arching walls of the House of Wind.
“I don’t have favourites,” Cassian lied, even though they all knew that was not true. “Now, let’s see whether you have been practicing whilst I’ve been gone.”
Cassian ran Feyre through her paces, slowly warming her up. After one round of boxing he was shaking his head at her in dismay. “Your footwork is messy, Archeron.”
“You’re not being very encouraging,” Feyre grumbled, but she reset her posture with a look of grim determination, the length of her tight braid swaying as she flipped it over her shoulder. Then, she ordered in a way that sung Nesta, “Tell me.”
“You’re not pivoting on your foot when you’re swinging those hooks,” Cassian told her sternly. “And don’t forget to reset your hands after each punch, you’re leaving your face wide open. I can’t have my High Lady getting smacked right in the nose, can I? Try it again and then we’ll rest for two.”
By the time he let Feyre get water she was grumbling at him. “I forgot how harsh you can be,” she said as she took a sip of water.
Cassian cut her a glance, smiling in a way that did nothing to erase the tension bracketing his mouth. “It gets the best results.”
Feyre followed Cassian’s gaze to where Nesta was in the middle of a round with Azriel. The Shadowsinger was cushioning every strike with his pads as Nesta worked through a myriad of punches and kicks. Cassian could tell by the rhythm Nesta had lost herself in that she was working on instinct rather than any routine Azriel had dictated. At her fingers, mist had started to swirl but it was calmer than he had expected. Silver blazed through shadow as she pounded Azriel’s palms time and time again.
“Is that the method you use with Nesta?” Feyre asked with a small shake of her head. “I wouldn’t have thought that method would work with her.”
A noise of agreement sounded in the back of Cassian’s throat. Nobody had been more surprised than him when Nesta hadn’t massacred him on the spot for issuing orders at her in the training ring. Not that he used the routine barks he threw at his soldiers with her; he wasn’t that keen for an early death. Instead, he used level instruction and only rewarded her with praise when it was deserved.
It was what had established a foundation of mutual respect between them. Cassian didn’t patronise or over-embellish Nesta with encouragement and she respected and took on-board his expertise. With time, that respect had stretched its rayed fingers into their life outside of the sparring ring, smoothing over sharp words and bites, like sunlight blooming from the horizon as it climbed the skies.
It had led to whatever last night had been. As usual, Cassian didn’t know what any of it truly meant. What he did know was that Nesta had slid her hand into his in Rhys’s study as Azriel detailed what he had learnt about Marsh. Her fingers had threaded through his unconsciously, their selves momentarily entwined and fused despite the audience. She had let him fly her back to the house and tug her back to his room for a few more hours of sleep, even though he’d wanted to do anything but sleep.
Pride surged through Cassian as Nesta spun on her heel and delivered a kick to the sparring pads with her foot, the blow so sharp that Azriel had to take a step back to steady himself. It was a force that should not have thrown his brother. Feyre caught it too.
“She’s as lethal as I thought she would be,” Feyre admitted, her voice full of awe. They watched Azriel push Nesta away as she went for a knee in the groin. Nesta immediately righted herself before launching herself back at him with a fierce round of punches, until Azriel called time. “I know I’ve seen her in combat,” Feyre continued. “But there’s something different in seeing her train hand-to-hand. She truly likes being in the ring.”
Cassian nodded. “Nesta is a natural. The focus tames her fire and thoughts.”
He jerked his chin to where Nesta and Azriel trained. Azriel had ditched the pads and was blocking punches with his arms, practicing openings with Nesta so she could attack on the offence.
“Watch,” Cassian instructed Feyre lowly. “See how Nesta took advantage of that opportunity? Az purposefully dropped his elbow to see whether she’d notice it.” He grimaced at Feyre and pinned her with a stern look. “That’s what you’re doing with your elbow. You’re getting sloppy. This,” he tapped Feyre’s the bend in her arm, “remains here.” He moved it so it was tucked in tightly to her body. “Dominant hand by your ear, other one by your mouth, that’s it. Now, let’s go again and then we break.”
Feyre was panting hard by the time Cassian put her through her paces for a second time. Spying that they had paused, Azriel also called for a break, and he and Nesta strode to meet them at the water table.
“Here,” Feyre greeted Nesta, pouring her sister some water from the tall ewer and offering it to her.
Delivering a short nod of thanks, Nesta took the glass. She was breathing hard and Cassian tracked the rivulet of sweat that was trickling down the side of her temple. She used her arm to dab it away and then took a few gulps of water.
Cassian made himself look away and focus his attention on his brother. Tried to rid himself of the thought of licking away the sweat and sinking his teeth into her neck. “You look like you’ve worked up a sweat.”
Azriel bowed his head at Nesta. “I was put through my paces.”
Nesta’s lips twitched and Cassian tried to dampen the jealousy that ignited inside of him at that faint trace of a smile. It had taken him months to get that out of her; he had endured barbed words and insults, battering and maims, tears and stony, vacant silence. Azriel had endured none of that and had been lucky enough to be graced with something Cassian had chased after for weeks—months.
The Shadowsinger’s hazel eyes darkened as they clocked Cassian’s territorial expression, but he didn’t comment. Only asked cooly, “What do you want me to do?”
It was an opportunity for Cassian to assign Azriel to Feyre, but Cassian pushed away the temptation. He hadn’t trained with Feyre in months and she was rusty enough that it was his duty to spend some time correcting her technique.
“Run through defensive moves with Nesta and then pick up the longsword. Nesta will tell you what we have been working on.” Cassian levelled the eldest Archeron sister with a pointed gaze. “Blast it up,” he told her. “Short bursts. Don’t expel it all at once. Control not excess.”
Nesta’s fire wasn’t something Cassian tended to instruct her on now. They had fallen into a regular enough routine that Cassian didn’t bat an eyelid when fire roared from her palms. In fact, for the most part Nesta had it reigned it under control. But they were in Velaris, where Cassian knew the strain of stale memories were taking their toll. And when Nesta was rundown her fire had a tendency to become wild and unpredictable.
She needed release—an opportunity to release some of her seemingly bottomless magic—and whilst Nesta’s fire had blazed across the room when he’d brought her to completion multiple times the night before, Cassian did not doubt that she would benefit from expelling more of it.
Perhaps when they were back in Illyria, Cassian could see to that more than once. And the thought of fucking Nesta anywhere in the House… Cassian threw a blanket over the thought, dousing the flames that threatened to roar to life and boil his blood.
Cassian was so preoccupied with not thinking about Nesta inappropriately that he drifted through Feyre’s drills, his focus that of a crescent moon, desire having taken a ravenous, greedy bite.
If he’d had his wits about him, he would have registered how Azriel bled in and out of shadow, flashing in and out of being, his foot hooking behind Nesta’s ankle and bringing her to the ground at the same time his arm twisted around her waist, flipping her onto her front.
There was a lancing flash of panic and Cassian tasted his heart in his mouth, the frantic beat of it thrashing like a fish out of water.
One moment Cassian was with Feyre and the next he had launched himself across the space between the training rings. Silver flame and ruby red got there first, Nesta acting on terrified instinct, the move Cassian had drilled into her over and over until she was sore and panting. Nesta jerked her head back, slamming her skull into Azriel’s nose so hard Cassian heard the crunch of bone. Then, she twisted and her hands were thrown out in front of her. Mercury fire blended with an explosion of ruby light, blasting into Azriel with a force that sent him careening backwards.
The snarl that unleashed itself from Cassian was wholly beast and it was only Nesta panting and shaking on the ground that stopped him from tearing at his brother with his talons and teeth.
But Sala was there, shooting across the distance between Nesta and the shadowsinger in a blur of wings and lean, unyielding muscle. She skidded to her feet so she was only inches from Azriel’s face and loosed a warning roar that was so ferocious, snow toppled off the mountains as the land shook.
Azriel—the stony faced, expressionless Shadowsinger—propped himself up onto an elbow and blinked in shock, as if he were trying to piece together what had happened. Blood ran down his nose but the remorse on his face was genuine.
“You stupid prick,” Cassian snapped as he thudded to his knees beside Nesta, ignoring the sharp pain that sluiced through his kneecaps. His wings were stretched out so wide his muscles burned, the gesture hostile but he couldn’t think beyond the terror that had coursed down the bond that was usually so constructed. He wrapped a wing protectively around Nesta’s shoulders. “What the fuck were you thinking?”
Nesta’s fingers gripped Cassian’s arm, the touch a silent warning, as she quickly sat up and searched for Azriel. When she saw his bleeding nose her magic disappeared in a wisp of smoke carried by the wind. “Did I burn you?”
Panic slicked her voice like oil—a partner to her pale face and worried expression. Cassian didn’t have to see through her leathers to know that the pyrite at her chest was gleaming scarlet. His siphons were winking, his protective magic sparked to life at what Nesta had perceived to be a threat. And Sala, she was still bent low, her tail whipping agitatedly from side to side.
But the manticore stepped back so Azriel could slowly uncurl from the floor. The shadowsinger bowed his head with such sincere apology that Cassian would have usually felt bad for snarling. But all he could think about was how he wanted to slam a fist into his brother’s face. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think,” Azriel apologised, his usual stoic expression awash with regret.
“What were you using your shadows for,” Cassian bit out, using his magic to crack Azriel’s nose back into place.
The shadowsinger grunted in pain, wiped away the blood with the back of his hand, before he levelled Cassian with a dead-eyed stare. “I was making it more challenging.”
Cassian growled and his fists clenched. “You know better—“
“It’s fine,” Nesta cut in, but Cassian could tell from the weariness cloying her voice that she was frayed and raw. “Sala,” she called. The manticore held Azriel’s stare with glowing eyes for a few more beats, but then she butted her head roughly into his side—as if she were admonishing a cub rather than a five hundred year old shadowsinger—before she padded back to Nesta. “Let me heal your nose,” Nesta said to Azriel. “I can stop the bleeding—“
But Azriel held up a hand with a shake of his head, but his eyes were not on Nesta but Cassian, as if he was waiting for his brother to launch himself across the ring and attack.  “It’s all right. ”
Nesta’s gaze flitted briefly to Cassian’s, as if she was putting together the workings of their mind, but the steely, blue depths of her eyes also secretly requested something else.
“Let’s switch partners for defensive,” Cassian ordered. He straightened and held out a hand so he could pull Nesta to her feet.
Her hand was ice cold and Cassian could have sworn something crackled between them—her fingers thawing as he channelled all of his warmth into her palm.
“Want to stop?” Cassian asked Nesta when Feyre and Azriel had distanced themselves.
Nesta narrowed her eyes and ignored the concerned glances Feyre was tossing her way. It wasn’t a glare but a conflicted frown. “No.”
“Want to pummel your fists at me?”
Nesta huffed but otherwise remained silent. Crossed her arms over her chest, blocking out the world. Looked away from him towards the city below with an intent that was too deliberate.
Desperate for a reaction, Cassian tugged teasingly at the stray strand of hair that had wound itself free from her braid. “Care to wrestle skin-on-skin, sweetheart?”
“What and make another wet dream of yours come true? Absolutely not,” Nesta snapped, batting his hand away.
Cassian barked a laugh of triumph. In the corner of his eye, he could see Feyre and Azriel looking over at them. He could almost sense his brother’s sigh of long-suffering despite the space between them. That, and the remorse that still clung to him as thickly as his shadows. Cassian knew Azriel hadn’t meant to scare Nesta. Knew that his brother had been far too removed recently, that he was no doubt exhausted from trying to track down Kallon, to have thought with a level head.
“I’m just saying I wouldn’t be opposed to making things a little more interesting,” Cassian taunted with a gleam in his eye, knowing that this was what Nesta needed: banter and distraction to smooth over the painful memories. “You were game last night.”
To Cassian’s surprise, the air around them turned heavy, like a blanket of stars casting their jewelled eyes down on them. Jasmine and vanilla thickened in the atmosphere, winding with Cassian’s pine and musk as Nesta unflinchingly met his stare. “And here I was thinking that the sparring ring was sacred to you.”
“Seeing you in those leathers has me wrestling with my self-restraint, sweetheart.”
The surprise that set alight Nesta’s eyes had Cassian wanting to reach for her. To kiss her. For all of Nesta’s confidence, Cassian knew she was self-conscious in her leathers. Whilst it had only showcased how thin she’d become when she’d first joined him four months ago, the material now clung to every muscle and curve.
Cassian had always thought Nesta stunningly attractive—the sort that hit you as sharp as whiplash. Even when she was gaunt and hollow and trauma had gilded her every breath, Nesta had still been mesmerising to him. But as she slowly began to train and eat, ditching her old vices, her very self emitted a healthy aura. It radiated from her skin, singing as magnificently as when she called forth her healing power.
Silver crackled threateningly at Nesta’s fingertips and her eyes glinted with cunning fire. “Go and cool off somewhere, bat.”
“Not a chance, sweetheart,” Cassian responded with a shit-eating grin. “I’d rather spend my time trying to persuade you to take another tussle in the sheets with me.”
“And I’d rather make you wait,” Nesta announced with an air of finality. “You’re far too cocky this morning.”
“I can wait,” Cassian assured her with a wink, even as his blood heated. He stalked over to the weapon’s rack and pulled off a longsword, which he handed to Nesta. She levelled the weight of the weapon in her hand, flipped the handle so she could inspect the circumference of the blade with an ease that shouldn’t have surprised him.
“Thirty minutes one-on-one with the sword,” Cassian told her. “More if you fail to remember the correct step-work I taught you before Solstice. Then I’ll have you go up against your sister so I can correct you both from a distance. If you want to stop just say and it’s done.”
But Nesta didn’t ask him to stop and Cassian ended the session by blasting his magic into the air and having Nesta fire arrows at it. Rhys had joined them towards the end of the session, taking over from Azriel to spar with Feyre. Cassian suspected it was an extended form of foreplay for them. He understood how it felt, Cassian thought his blood might leap out of his skin. All he could think about was how Nesta had tasted on his tongue. How she’d moaned and writhed and begged. How he’d spilled across her stomach, her hand a sacred touch unlike any other.
As they continued to practice, Cassian felt Rhys’s weighted gaze on Nesta as she pierced his scarlet magic with arrow after arrow.
“Relax your bow hand,” Rhys instructed, calling across the sparring ring as Nesta followed the red circle of light which trailed up through the air from the siphon on the back of Cassian’s right hand. He and Feyre had called it for the day and had paused at the water table to rehydrate.
Blindly, Nesta followed the order—Cassian suspected because she hadn’t connected the dots at who had fired the command—before releasing the string. The arrow speared through wind and azure, travelled directly through the core of Cassian’s light. Ruby dispersed in a fizzle of light.
Rhys nodded as Nesta dropped the bow to stare at him. “For the last few shots you’ve had bow torque—it’s slight, but it’s there.”
Nesta’s brows drew together in a motion that would have most assuming that she was irritated, but Cassian knew better. She was thinking, trying to dissect where she went wrong.
Rhys must have sense it too because he pushed of the tall table which hosted the ewer and a scatter of used drinking glasses to walk over to them. Rhys had wings today, probably because the pale sunlight was a perfect excuse to soak up the rare winter warmth.
“May I?” Rhys asked as he drew up beside them and Nesta blinked at the etiquette.
To Cassian’s surprise, Nesta darted a look at him and he felt that uncertainty—the wave of it like nausea.
“Rhys is better at the bow than me,” Cassian admitted to Nesta with a mock grimace. He resettled his stance and crossed his arms over his chest, anything to stop himself from bristling at the thought of Rhys touching Nesta. “Not by much mind,” he added quickly at Rhys’s smug smirk.
But that was enough for Nesta. “Ok,” she conceded with a dip of her chin and Rhys closed the distance.
What Nesta asked next had Cassian’s heart twisting in his chest. It eased the territorial part of him that was clawing to intervene. “Is it bad? The…” she trailed off, clearly unsure of the term Rhys had mentioned.
“The bow torque? No, it’s not too bad,” Rhys assured Nesta as he took the bow from her. His voice dropped so it was softer, less cold, as if he realised how rare it was for Nesta to expose herself as insecure. “It’s ever so slight. The problem is coming from how you’re holding the bow. You need to keep your hand completely relaxed from the time you start drawing back until the arrow has hit its target. You’ve been squeezing the grip so your fingers are twisting outwards when you release the string. You need to let them hang naturally—limp.”
Rhys nocked a new arrow, took stance and drew back the string, making a show of how his hold remained relaxed. Knowing what he wanted, Cassian threw a light into the air for his brother and Rhys tracked it, his body loose yet alert. When the arrow flew, it pierced the heart of Cassian’s light.
“I see what you mean,” Nesta remarked and held out her hand for the bow with silent command. Cassian bit back a proud smile at the determination on her face. He hadn’t failed to notice how closely Nesta had scrutinised Rhys’s bowmanship. How she was now so keen to learn that she readily exposed herself to the possibility of doing something wrong.
“Who has been teaching you?” Rhys asked conversationally, after Nesta had hit three clean bullseyes in a row.
His brother didn’t need to ask. Cassian had already told his Rhys how well Nesta was progressing with the bow, but Cassian appreciated his brother’s efforts to breach the steely gap between himself and his mate’s sister.
Feyre clocked it, too. She had come over to join them but had remained silent. She shot Cassian a surprised look and he lifted an eyebrow in response.
“Lorrian,” Nesta replied, as she placed the bow back onto the weapon’s rack with a gentle snick.
Rhys dipped his chin. “The best then,” he replied.
“Yes.” Then, “Thank you for the help.” Nesta slid her gaze to Cassian. “Are we done?”
“We’re done,” Cassian confirmed. “Go clean up.”
He tracked Nesta’s every movement. Even once she had disappeared through the archway with her sister, he didn’t look away. Not even when Sala’s swaying haunches had faded into the dark and her tail was the only flicker against the depths of the shadowy stairwell; a silver glow.
He thought of Nesta peeling off her leathers in her rooms as she ran a bath. Began to start towards the archway, his legs moving independent of reason, when Rhys commented, “Your mind’s in a gutter, brother.”
Cassian stilled. Loosed a grunt. Made himself grin wolfishly as he turned. “When is it not?”
“How bad is it?”
The urge. That’s what Rhys was referring to. His brother had always known the truth. From the moment Cassian had left the family dinner table as he was plagued of images and sounds of tangled flesh and laboured breathing. Of Nesta entangled with someone else. It had been like shiny, fierce splinters stabbing through his heart. Cassian had escaped to the wine cellar on the pretence of bringing up more wine, only for Rhys to find him and for Cassian to admit what he was sure his brother had expected for a long time.
The next day Feyre had summoned Nesta to the river house and Cassian had taken Nesta to Illyria.
And now Cassian had been granted a taste of Nesta and found his own release. It had made the urge to claim her worse somehow. Cassian felt like his skin was crawling, his blood boiling furiously, pulsing and bubbling like millions of furious hearts trying to tug him towards her.
But Cassian couldn’t voice how bad it was, even though he knew his brother understood. He and Nesta weren’t even mated for fucks sake and Cassian felt like he was going to go out of his mind. How had Rhys managed it with Feyre for months?
“It’s fine,” he said tightly.
“Feyre thought you were going to pummel Azriel into the dirt.”
“I was planning on it,” Cassian gritted out, his fists clenching involuntarily at the memory of Nesta shaking and panting on the floor.
“Feyre called me here.”
Cassian’s head whipped to the side. “Because of Sala? That was just a caution—”
“Not because of Sala. Because of you.”
Because of the testosterone pumping through Cassian’s veins, no doubt. That call to protect and claim that was already driving every thought and transcending every other need.
“I’m fine,” Cassian repeated again. He rubbed his palms over his face to give his body something to do, lest he launch into the air and fly straight through Nesta’s open window.
Cassian bet he could make every previous horror that came with the bathtub from Nesta’s mind with a few strokes of his tongue. And that would mean he could taste her again—
“I’ll spar with you later,” Rhys replied knowingly and he dared to clap Cassian firmly on the shoulder. It jolted Cassian out of his untoward thoughts. “But for now I need you to go and speak with Maya.”
***
The suite Maya and her daughters had been allocated was situated on the same floor as Cassian’s at the far left of the House, providing a glittering view of the west of the city.
No voices filtered beneath the door from the apartment beyond as he approached and Cassian didn’t pick up any movement either. Instead, the air was hushed and mournful. Painful, in truth—acute and sharp as a needle.
When Cassian rapped his knuckles against the wood of the door, the noise was too loud.  The echo whipped around the hallways and clung to the stone; a hollow, lack-lustre energy.
Eventually, Cassian picked up the faint tread of approaching feet. The sound was so soft Cassian wondered if Maya had been trained to walk like a warrior, or, more likely, she had learnt to become a ghost lest she attract unwanted attention at Marsh’s residence.  
The heavy wooden door opened a crack and a slice of winter sunshine crept into the hallway from the large windows that ran along the wall opposite. Maya’s large, almond shaped eyes widened when she spied Cassian, but she opened the door a bit further, enough so that Cassian spied Samra sprawled on the ornate couch in front of the hearth, her unmarred wings spread wide and curled around the furniture as it was a blanket moulding to the objects beneath it.
Allie was nowhere to be seen.
As if Maya sensed Cassian’s curiosity, the twin stepped neatly out into the hallway. She moved with feline grace, her posture straight. As it usually was, the twin’s ebony hair was twisted back into its usual double knot at the base of her spine and it gobbled up the light that seeped through the crack in the door, the colour identical to his own—to every other Illyrian.
Clasping her hands in front of her hips across the green woollen fabric of her Illyrian dress, Maya looked expectantly at Cassian. When he did not immediately speak, she said softly, “It is kind of you to visit us again, Lord Cassian.”
Cassian nodded. He had visited Maya only the day before to check she was comfortable and to see whether he could bring them anything. Cassian didn’t know why but he had an instinctive urge to help Maya that he could not ignore. Her plight reminded Cassian of what had happened to his mother and so many females before and after her.
Not that Cassian could truly remember his mother, of course, but what had happened to Maya—the cruelty she and her daughters had suffered—drew out this need in Cassian to protect the females of Illyria—to offer them a hand that hauled them out of the sexism that was engrained so deeply into Illyrian society.
“Is the apartment to your liking?” he asked, ignoring Maya’s curious stare, as if she was dissecting his very self. “You have access to the whole of the House here, you needn’t stay in your rooms. And you are more than welcome to join us at mealtimes in the dining room. It’s situated a level up from here.”
Maya offered him a small, genuine smile, but there was a shrewd quality in the depths of her gaze that reminded Cassian of Frawley, as if the wheels in her brain never stopped turning. “Thank you, but I do not think you are here to be hospitable today.”
There was nothing gracious about lying, especially to someone who had been subject to such a harsh life. So, Cassian conceded, “No, I’m not.”
Maya lifted her head. “Nesta tells me there’s a private library here, Lord Cassian.”
“There is,” Cassian confirmed, wondering how Nesta managed to stop Maya adding a title before her name. Wondered if he’d be able to do the same. “And it’s just Cassian. I’m not a Lord.”
Maya cocked her head. “You are like Nesta. You shy away from your title.”
“It is not mine to claim,” Cassian told Maya. “Surely even in Ironcrest it is no secret that I grew up on the outskirts of the camp.”
Something shifted in Maya’s eyes and it was not pity, but… sad. She looked grievously sad. “Of Windhaven?” she asked, but the way she spoke was for confirmation rather than uncertainty.
“I was born and raised in Spearhead until I was old enough to train. Windhaven after that,” Cassian corrected.
Maya looked away. Opened her mouth to speak but Cassian got their first and her hazel eyes snapped to his. “You have heard of what I did.”
Maya did not shy from his gaze. Only tilted her chin upwards to meet his eye. The faelight torches held by the sconces on the walls lightened her irises, and Cassian noted that they were almost a burnt amber interspersed with lightning forks of green. “As you say, even as confined as I was to Marsh’s residence, I do not think there is anyone in Illyria who has not heard of what happened at Spearhead, Lord Cassian.”
Cassian wasn’t sure what to say to that. He didn’t regret what he had done to those complicit in his mother’s suffering. They had all deserved it. They had deserved far more and he would do it again if anybody dared cause such grave suffering to someone he loved.
For some reason, he wanted to voice that to Maya but the words got lodged in his throat.
“Perhaps you can take me there?”
Casual blinked. “To Spearhead?”
A small, faint smile laced with that sorrow flickered across the twin’s face. “No, the subject clearly brings you suffering. I was speaking of the private library. My girls can’t read well enough for books but I was granted an education. I should like to see it.” Then, Maya elaborated pointedly, “And you are here to deliver bad news. I’d rather spare my girls from it until I have to.”
Cassian swallowed the lump in his throat. Marsh had bedded Maya against her will for years. Had inflicted great suffering upon her, including taking her youngling from her at birth—a Princeling who was raised to be cruel and callous. And then she had been denied access to her girls.
But Cassian only bowed his head in agreement. “Of course.”
Gently, Maya closed the door to her apartment suite behind her. She followed Cassian along the dark hallway. Their feet clipped and reverberated on stone as they travelled down the staircase to Nesta’s floor.
Cassian shot Maya a sideways smile as they approached the double doors to the library. If Nesta wasn’t busy with her sisters today Cassian knew that she would most likely be here with her nose buried in a book. He also knew that if he had found her here then he would have lasted all but five minutes before he sought her out and tried to distract her.
Fuck, perhaps it was a good that Nesta was busy with Feyre at her art studio located in the heart of the rainbow, Cassian thought. That she had also promised to spend the afternoon with Elain walking through the city gardens that Rhys had charged Elain with attending to.
“Please,” Cassian said, gesturing to Nesta’s favourite chair. It was wing-backed and made of soft tan leather. It was positioned to look out at the view of the city below; the Sidra a curvaceous, glittering ribbon through the centre of the green-tiled houses and opulent marble market squares until it met the sea.
Slowly, Maya perched herself on the edge of the chair as Cassian took a seat opposite. The twin trapped her hands between her knees, as if that would stop them from wringing.
Suddenly, Cassian’s tongue felt too big for his mouth and speech was difficult. But he eventually said, “Word came that Marsh passed last night.”
There was a pivotal silence in which everything seemed to hush, and then, to Cassian’s dismay, tears welled in the twin’s eyes. Cassian smelt water and salt as tears trickled down her cheeks; tremulous tracks of relief and… what Cassian thought might be grief.
“Sorry,” Maya apologised, flustered as she blinked rapidly, brushing the tears away with her knuckles.
Leaning across the space, Cassian closed his hand atop one of Maya’s and gave it a gentle squeeze of comfort. “Don’t be,” he told her, suffusing his voice with what he hoped was genuine kindness. He handed her a handkerchief that the House magicked onto the small reading table by his side. Gently, he pressed the cloth into her hands. “Here.”
“He died peacefully?” Maya asked, after she had taken her time dab the handkerchief across her cheeks. She held the cloth to her eyes as if she was pressing in a surging well of emotion. Cassian was glad Nesta was not here. For some reason, Cassian knew the depth and gravity of Maya’s feelings would be a tidal wave to Nesta given her empath gift.
“From what we know, yes, we believe his passing was peaceful,” Cassian admitted, wrestling with himself to prevent his brow from knitting.
From what Lorrian had detailed, Marsh had used Maya against her will in place of her sister Lyanne—Marsh’s wife—after she had died in a fire. Marsh had used Maya in the hope that she would bear him a first-born blessed by the Gods given the prophecy that had unveiled that either she or her twin’s first child would be star-born.
And here Maya was shedding tears for him. As if he was worthy of it, despite his horrific actions.
Cassian knew he would never be able to understand the complexity of Maya’s emotions given what she had endured, but for her to be able to give Marsh the honour of mourning him, even if it was only for this slice of time... well, Maya was a greater fae then Cassian could ever be.
Nodding, Maya sniffed. She had kept her eyes trained firmly on her lap, but now she summoned the courage to look up at him. “And Kallon? I suppose he has come to claim his right to the clan?”
Tension bracketed Cassian’s mouth, pulling his lips into a thin, grim line. “Not yet.”
Maya straightened, suddenly more composed. “He will.”
Cassian thought the same, but he still asked, “Why do you say that?”
“Why would anybody turn down responsibility of a clan when they already seek power for a cause? It will be easier for him infiltrate the minds of the Ironcrest people in a place of unrivalled authority. Do not think he has not been preparing for this moment. Marsh’s health has been declining for a long time and there is no one else to challenge him.”
“The Ironcrest nobility could step forward,” Cassian supplied.
“They will not,” Maya assured Cassian. “Nobody will question Kallon’s authority. They have all seen Enalius’s sword. They have felt its power.”
“But not its allegiance,” Cassian told Maya.
“They do not know that,” Maya replied. “They are not powerful or smart enough to see past the allure of its ancient magic and question why Kallon has not been using it. They only know that it is God-given—a merciless weapon for a warrior God—and Illyrian’s do not question the way of the Gods.”
A merciless weapon for a warrior God. Maya had slipped briefly into Illyrian, but those words were familiar to Cassian.
“You are quoting Heroicis,” Cassian stated, because had been known those words for hundreds of years. Had learnt to read so he could absorb the words on the page that he had stared at time and time again as a young boy who had nothing but the clothes on his back and the last reminder of his mother and the roots that came with that.
Surprise flickered across Maya’s face. Cassian supposed a bastard would not normally be overly familiar with the ancient text—or be expected to read. But the Illyrian nobility would have been raised reading Heroicis.
“Yes,” Maya nodded. “Kallon has always been very interested in Heroicis, ever since he was a child. It is my fault. When I was allowed to see him, I would read it to him. It is what  my sister and I grew up listening to. I wanted to continue the tradition—to detail the great battle with male and female Illyrian’s fighting alongside Oya and Enalius to my son.”
A faint smile tugged at Maya’s lips as a memory took form. “My sister and I used to act it out when we escaped into the tunnels. We would bicker over who would be Oya and who would be Enalius. M—” Maya broke off and shook her head as if she could see the last before her eyes. “My sister always got to be Oya. Whilst we were identical in looks, we differed in mannerisms. She was strong-headed, fierce and loyal to a fault. She had this commanding nature about her that had even the bullish of males sitting up and taking stock. I was more timid and preferred to bury my nose in books. I wouldn’t have learnt to fight if she hadn’t persuaded one of the guards to give us secret lessons at the cave at the back of the mountain residence. That’s how I knew about its location—how I guessed where Kallon was keeping the girls.”
Having seen Maya fight, Cassian was not sure that he agreed that she was timid. He wouldn’t deny that she had been easily frightened when they’d first met, but that was out of fear of Marsh’s wrath and her daughters well-being than true character.
“You must miss her very much,” Cassian said. He remembered what Lorrian had told him—that her sister had died with Marsh’s brother, Halias. That it had been rumoured that they had been partaking in an affair.
For the first time, Maya lifted her eyes and held his gaze, as if the mention of her sister had brought her courage. “I do. She was my everything—my other half—and since she has been gone I have not once felt whole. For most fae marriage or the mating bond is the tie that makes you complete … but for my sister and I, our twin connection rendered us one.”
“It must have been very difficult,” Cassian said, “to have the weight of a prophecy on your shoulders from such a young age.”
“The prophecy secured our fate and because of it my sister was lost to me before her death,” Maya reasoned. “But no true happiness comes from discussing the past and the brothers that my sister and I were chained to by marriage. If you think Marsh was a monster, you did not know his brother.”
“Halias?” Cassian asked.
To Cassian’s surprise, Maya’s lip curled. “My sister’s fate was a tragedy, but the agony that Halias was claimed by in that fire was deserved over and over. It is the only consolation I have; that whilst my sister died, he also suffered.”
‘I am sorry for what you and your sister have endured,” Cassian told Maya earnestly. “I have long fought for female rights in Illyria but the progress has been so slow—” He rubbed his hands over his face. “If Kallon’s rebellion catches aflame then it will raze any hope of giving the Illyrians living on the margins a voice. The Night Court cannot let it happen. I know he’s your son—”
“He is my son and he isn’t,” Maya confirmed. “Like my sister, he has long been lost to me and it took me far too long to realise it. What he did to my girls… I will never forgive him for that.”
“But if the prophecy is to be believed, he is star-born,” Cassian said. “Whether we like it or not we cannot ignore that fact, even if he has yet to master the sword.”
“A prophecy is a prediction,” Maya corrected. “It is not truth. Illyrian’s are superstitious and often do not see rational sense in understanding that any change of events can alter life’s course.”
“You think that is why the sword’s blade vanishes when it is used,” Cassian put together, as he studied Maya as she got to her feet. “Because the prophecy’s course has been altered?”
“Perhaps,” Maya agreed. “Given that you are familiar with Heroicis, you will know that it was Oya that gifted Enalius the sword.”
“That’s right,” Cassian agreed. “I have a copy in my room. I was reading it just this morning.”
It was true. Cassian wasn’t sure why he had packed it but it had seemed only right that it travel with him, especially given that it was the only current drawing they had of the sword to go by. Only the day prior, Cassian had travelled down into the library’s depths to ask Clotho for help. The mangled-fingered Priestess had wasted little time in assisting him, summoning a young, red-haired fae who served Merill—a female who Clotho ensured Cassian was one of the most knowledgeable in the library. The red-head had listened to what Cassian had to say with an intensity that matched her teal eyes. And whilst the female had looked at him with caution, she had not backed away from him, only scampering off after promising him that she would do her best to scour the library for any information on the sword, Enalius or the first Illyrian battle.
Maya bobbed her head to indicate that she had heard him. “When Oya gifted Enalius with the sword Heroicis states that it is designed to—“
“—slay the demon sheathed in flesh,” Cassian finished. He flashed Maya a wolfish grin. “I wasn't lying when I told you that I am familiar with the text. I assume Kallon is just as familiar with it?”
“Yes,” Maya nodded, but there was regret in her eyes. “If Kallon believes the sword needs to be bonded to him in order for it to work, then beyond him attempting to manipulate answers from the ancients, that’s the first place he would look to.”
Frustration furrowed Cassian’s features. He’d known this. They all had, deep down, but they still weren’t getting any answers.
“And I suppose in Kallon’s eyes, the demon is the Night Court,” Cassian responded grimly.
“Yes,” Maya said. “After all, what is a divine text if it is not there to be bent to someone’s will in a bid for power?”
***
“You really want to do this on your birthday?” Nesta asked Cassian for the second time, as she stared out at the lush landscape around them.
The flatlands that surrounded Velaris and its mountains had been a patchwork of colour when they had been airborne, but now there were only shots of dark green and earth, winding beaten paths, grass borders and red-berried bushy hedgerows, interspersed with farmhouses, cottages and livestock. On the right, the mountains rose up, their hunched, broken backs bowed towards the sky.
“I’m starting to think you’re trying to get out of this, sweetheart,” Cassian shot back with a roguish grin. “And is it so unbelievable that I want to spend time with you?”
His words were an echo from the day they travelled to Kamanam and Cassian could tell from the way Nesta stifled a snort that she realised what he’d done. She crossed her arms firmly over her chest—whether it was a defensive move or to shield herself from the cold, Cassian wasn’t sure. What he did know was that it emphasised the generous swell of her breasts and Cassian had to use every ounce of his will to look her in the eye rather than launch between them and take her right on the earthen floor.
From the way silver lit up Nesta’s eyes, Cassian had a feeling that Nesta knew what he was thinking. It kindled his own fire and his smile became smoke, his scent heady. He couldn’t stop the suggestive words that fell out of his mouth. “Given that you didn’t have a midnight workout last night, you should have plenty of energy.”
Metallic glinted in Nesta’s irises and that bond between them creaked and cracked as it expanded a fraction. It was enough that Cassian felt a spear of something curl in his stomach. “You could have come to me. I left the door open.”
Surprise lanced through Cassian, because it wasn’t a lie. He had come home from a late drink with his brothers to find his bed empty. It had left him feeling as if someone had scooped out his insides and whilst he had tried to push away the disappointment, one touch of his skin against the cold sheets had been akin to sending icy shards of longing through his heart.
So, Cassian had rolled out of bed and trodden silently to Nesta’s rooms to find the door cracked open. She had been sleeping with her back to the door—something that sent waves of panic through him despite Sala positioned at the foot of the bed—and only the bare slope of her shoulder sat atop the blankets; a tempting, unblemished curve that Cassian had wanted to trace with lips and teeth.
But he had resisted his desires. For all of Nesta’s tendency to constrict the bond during her waking hours, sleep slackened their connection. The silence wasn’t a terrifying pitch black that Cassian had felt from her before, but smooth as a midnight sky dusted with stars. It was still and quiet and peaceful, and Cassian hadn’t the heart to be selfish enough to drag her from the depths of a sleep she so sorely needed.
Instead, Cassian had coaxed the blanket up to Nesta’s neck so she wouldn’t grow cold and had whispered to Sala to protect her before he had taken his leave.
Just the memory had Cassian’s suggestive smile softening like butter in sunlight. “I did. You were asleep.”
The faint flicker of Nesta’s surprise tugged at his ribcage and her expression became liquid. “You could have woken me up. I’m sure you had a few ideas.”
Images of what Cassian could have done to rouse Nesta from sleep coursed through him and the taste of her—the scent that hadn’t left him— intensified on his tongue. His cock strained against his pants to the point that it hurt, but Cassian made himself swallow.
Clenching his trembling hands into fists, he searched those beautiful eyes for a trace of hesitation or regret, but he found none.
“I didn’t know that,” Cassian replied honestly. “I didn’t know if you wanted that.”
Nesta did not back down from his gaze. Did not run or snort or loose that viper tongue. She just held his gaze, as if they were locked into place. “Well, now you do.”
“I do,” Cassian agreed, his heart beating in his mouth. “I’ll come later.”
The feline smirk that played across Nesta’s face had Cassian barking a laugh, but then she dragged her gaze to the fields that stretched out before them. She jerked her head to the left in the direction of Velaris, away from the sea and the mountains. “That way?”
Desire throbbed painfully beneath his skin but Cassian made himself shake his head. He retied his hair into a tight top knot, mainly for something to preoccupy his hands. Nesta tracked the movement and Cassian wondered if she spied how his fingers shook, making clumsy work. “We’ll head southwards,” he informed her.
Nesta frowned. “We aren’t running back to the city?”
“I wanted to take you somewhere else first,” Cassian confessed. “Will you let me? It’s a couple of miles towards the sea. The terrain is flat, so it should be easy for you considering you usually run up the mountain.”
“Ok,” Nesta agreed simply.
They ran in relative silence, the staccato of Nesta’s breath and the pounding of their feet the only accompaniment to the fields and winding country lanes. Nesta did not complain, only shot Cassian an irritated look when he urged her to up the pace and she realised he’d barely broken a sweat.
Eventually, Cassian signalled for Nesta to stop and she leant over her knees, her breath winding up in clouds of smoke.
After a moment, Nesta frowned up at him from where she was doubled-over. “I can keep going.”
“I know,” Cassian assured her, because he did know she could go further, even though he’d pushed her to a pace that launched her well out of her comfort zone. “I just thought we could do with a breather.”
The disbelieving glare Nesta shot him had him laughing. He held up his hands. “Just because I’m not gasping for breath doesn’t mean I’m not tired, sweetheart.”
Gesturing to the stacked stone wall made up of cobbled dusty red, Cassian said, “This way.”
With an ease that he knew would annoy her, Cassian climbed over the waist high wall and grinned to her from the other side.
“Isn’t this trespassing?” Nesta asked curiously, but she followed him anyway, using the uneven stone as footholds before swinging her legs over the top to join him in the meadow on the other side.
“It’s fine,” Cassian assured her and before she had time to process it, he took her hand. Tugged her along after him. “There’s a stream just by that copse of trees over there. We can rest for a while before we run back.”
“By the cottage?” Nesta queried as she observed the scenery. The winter meadow stretched before them, giving way to a fenced off paddock and a stone cottage with multiple gabled roofs and generous windows. To its right were a series of shadowy outbuildings—stables and a modest barn—and to its left was a stream covered with a thin film of ice.
“What if someone’s home?” Nesta asked, but when Cassian glanced behind him he saw that she was still preoccupied with their surroundings, her eyes wide in a way that caressed his very core.
“Nobody’s home,” Cassian reassured her, a faint smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “And nobody will mind if we rest here.”
“Are you herding me?” Nesta challenged as he curved a wing around her shoulder, encouraging her to follow him.
Cassian laughed. “Perhaps. I never know when you're going to be stubborn.”
“I’m always stubborn,” Nesta scowled but she didn't bat him away, allowing him to lead her through the winter meadow that was still kissed with melting frost.
“You like it here?” Cassian asked curiously, after they had taken turns drinking from the stream. It may have been frozen over but the water still ran steadily beneath the surface. Cassian had only had to stomp down on it with the heel of his boot to get to the water beneath.
Nesta studied him from where she was perched on the hollowed out remains of a fallen tree trunk. She had been quiet for a long while and Cassian had known better than to pry. Especially when she was drinking in the scenery as if she was starved for it.
“It reminds me a bit of Lorrian and Frawley’s,” Nesta admitted after a long moment. “It’s nice and green. Spacious and quiet. I like that you can smell the salt on the wind.”
Cassia nodded in the direction of the stream and the trees that loosely lined the other side of it. “The sea is only half a mile or so away beyond the trees. Velaris is a short flight to the East. I thought Maya and the girls might like to stay here, away from the hustle and bustle of the city.”
Nesta’s head whipped away from the direction of the cottage. Cassian had a feeling that she was looking for signs of life, but the chimneys remained lifeless and no movement came from around the premise.
“You found them a house?”
“This cottage and the land surrounding it is mine,” Cassian admitted, nodding to the stream and surrounding meadows and fields, which stretched to brush alongside the flank of the stone brick cottage. “I bought it a long time ago but I usually let it out. The previous tenant just moved on last month, so Maya and the girls can stay here if they’d like.” He raised a shoulder before letting it drop. “It saves me the trouble of finding someone else to let it to.”
But Nesta was frowning. “There’s livestock here.”
The left-side of Cassian’s mouth kicked upwards, forming a crooked smile. Was there anything she missed? “I let the farmers in the area use the land. It would be selfish to own somewhere I don’t use when they could make use of it.”
“I thought you like staying in the city,” Nesta stated bluntly.
“I do,” Cassian confirmed. He cocked his head playfully at her and closed the distance between them. Tugged at a stray strand of hair that had fallen loose from her braid. “This place is for when I am old and weary, Nes.”
He waited for her to snap at him. To tell him not to call her that, but Nesta only tilted her head until she was mirroring him, as if she was trying to figure him out.
“I always intended to move out when the time was right,” Cassian continued, because her silence had his heart slamming against his ribcage again and he wasn’t sure why. “I like to be surrounded by nature—you’ve seen what Illyria is like. Here it would only take me twenty minutes to get to Velaris by wings, but I get some peace and quiet and a damn good view of the sea.”
“And the time was never right?” Nesta guessed. Her voice had dropped into something soft and burnished—evanescent. Cassian desperately wanted to hold onto it.
But he merely shrugged. “Work is always demanding and usually requires that I’m in the city or in Illyria. My friends and family are there. I never had anybody else significant in my life to want to sacrifice that. So,” Cassian shrugged, “you could say that I bought the roots but it was never quite the right time to settle. Maya and the girls can get good use of the cottage. Start anew until they want to move on and find somewhere of their own.”
“What?” Cassian queried with a raised brow, after a too long silence had stretched out where Nesta only continued to stare at him.
Swallowing, Nesta shook her head. But then she surprised him. She pushed off of the trunk, sunk the tips of her fingers into the leathers encasing his arms and lifted herself up onto her tiptoes so she could brush a kiss to his cheek.
Her scent encased him and his hands moved of their own volition, settling on her hips as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
“What was that for?” he asked, silently cursing himself at how hoarse he sounded. How broken.
Nesta loosed a shoulder but he could tell from the way her eyes rippled like water that she was anything but nonchalant. “You are impossibly kind and good,” Nesta said quietly—earnestly—and Cassian blinked in surprise. Not that Nesta could think those things about him, but that she’d grant him the privilege of saying it out loud. She searched his eyes as if she was looking for something important—seeing something that he did not understand. The sudden sadness he felt was not his own. “The world does not deserve you, Cassian.”
Cassian went to speak. His lips parted, but Nesta cut in before he could say anything. Stepped away before he could bow his head to kiss her and erase that sadness. “Which way back to Velaris?”
***
Cassian made Nesta run another three miles back towards Velaris before he simply scooped her up into his arms and flew the rest of the distance. But rather than fly them back to the House of Wind, he set them down at the southern outskirt of the city, where the land met the sea and the many ships in its harbour.
He bought them battered salted cod fish wrapped in newspaper from the small stall at the heart of the docks he’d been visiting for years. Then, they sat on the planks of one of the quieter piers that stretched out onto the sea, their feet dangling over the bottomless blue. Nesta didn’t balk at sharing food with him or even at trying something new, and they ate and conversed with an ease that left Cassian warm.
After they had licked the crumbs and grease from their fingers, Cassian had offered Nesta his hand to help her up.
She hadn’t let go.
They walked back into the heart of the city hand in hand, following the curve of the river. Cassian led them over stone arch bridges and into narrow streets made up of white marble cobbles. Pedestrians nodded hello but Cassian didn’t stop to engage them. He only offered them glimpsing smiles as he explained to Nesta about Hogmanay. Pointed out the pastry-wrapped fruitcake piled in the windows of bakeries and cake shops. Explained why the sconces on either side of the lampposts were lit with blazing torches even in the day, and how at night, some parts of the city would turn into a street parade lined with performers, including fae practicing fire-breathing and swinging fireballs. Cassian even pointed out the restaurant they would eat at later, the small shopfront lined with rustic wooden tables sheltered by an awning a deep midnight blue and speckled with what looked like starlight.
It was all so… normal. Domestic, even. Nesta’s fingers remained firmly threaded through his and her attention only wavered when they headed down a particularly narrow street which was paved either side with tall, asymmetrical buildings that Cassian thought Nesta would appreciate for their uniqueness. Unlike the usual marble houses with their green gabled roofs, the uneven townhouses had all been converted into shops and were painted in gentle pastel colours and framed with old oak beams. They were colourful, but in no way as vibrant and showy as the Rainbow—muted and soft and unassuming.
From the way Nesta fell quiet, Cassian knew she had not stumbled upon the street before. With wide eyes, Nesta soaked up the atmosphere around them but Cassian’s gaze remained transfixed on her face, memorising her expression as if it was as vital as breathing. For once, she looked so unguarded and so happy that Cassian couldn’t bring himself to coax her along and out of the way of the pedestrians scurrying about trying to complete the last of their shopping before the evening’s celebrations. Instead, he allowed her to slow to snail’s pace outside a particularly old bookshop with large antique windows, Cassian nodded to its door.
“Why don’t you browse whilst I get you a cup of tea,” he announced eventually, when he realised that Nesta would not voice that she wanted to look inside. “You need to rehydrate. And I imagine you want to take some books back to Illyria.”
Nesta looked both torn and surprised. Cassian wondered if anybody had truly noticed Nesta before him—what she wanted and what she disliked, what made her eyes shine and what made her irate. The thought made something deep inside of him ache, because he knew what the answer was. Too often Nesta had studied Cassian with such blatant disbelief when he had correctly anticipated what she needed, as if she hadn’t expected him to notice her at all.
Laughing softly, Cassian untangled his fingers from hers. “You’ve not been listening to a word I’ve said since you spotted it,” he explained. Pressed a daring kiss to her knuckles before he let her go and urged her to the front door.
Biting back a scowl, Nesta allowed him to shepherd her towards the front door. “I’ll be five minutes,” she relented.
“I know what that means,” Cassian grinned. The bell above the door tinkled as she pushed it open. “I’ll be at least ten minutes, sweetheart. Don’t rush.”
***
Nesta took Cassian at his word, because by the time he arrived back at the shop, she was still inside. Leaning against the wall of an apothecary across the street, Cassian held onto the two mugs of steaming tea in his hands and watched the passers by whilst he waited.
“Well, look who it is, the Lord of Bloodshed as I live and breathe.”
Turning his head to the left, Cassian found a dark-haired female situated at a diagonal to him across the pavement. She was tall and generously curvaceous, her espresso skin unblemished. Emerald cat eyes gleamed at him before the female dropped one eyelid in a teasing wink, her eyelashes fluttering.
“Nakeisha,” Cassian chuckled in greeting, pushing off of the wall, “it’s been a while.”
The wild, cheshire cat smile Nakeisha tossed his way showcased every single one of her white teeth. It reminded Cassian that once upon a time that her mouth was one of the things Cassian had liked best during their many nights between the sheets, but now the memory only filled him with a sense of foreboding.
Over the years, Cassian had rarely dread bumping into one of his many flings. For the most part, they were always fun and Cassian had always made it very clear that he wasn’t one to stick around—give or take the few relationships that had actually been something more. Nakeisha was not one of those relationships. Yes, they had hooked up many times over the centuries and it had been fun, but neither of them had been after more than a release. It was why Cassian had always gone back for more. He rarely found someone so aloof and casual when it came to the bedroom, especially considering Nakeisha was so ambitious in real life. She was a female who knew what she wanted and wouldn’t stop until she got it. She spent her days relentlessly working for a refugee initiative which helped to home anyone in need of shelter across the court borders, but she partied harder.
Even Cassian had never been able to keep up. In truth, he had always been happy not to, but he wouldn’t deny that their arrangement hadn’t been there in part because she was easy on the eyes.
“It must be nearly a year,” Nakeisha said, cocking her head at him. Her long, cornrow braids swished with the movement. “I never see you out anymore. You were always a regular at Rita’s.”
“I’m stationed in Illyria at the moment,” Cassian replied smoothly. “Have been on and off since the war.”
Nakeisha nodded, but didn't ask for more details. She knew better than to ask. “Back for Hogmanay?”
“Yes,” he confirmed. Unable to help himself, he glanced towards the shop, searching for Nesta through the large glass window. A spike of panic lanced through him when he came up empty.
Nakeisha’s amber eyes were sparkling when he shifted his gaze back to hers. “Waiting for someone?”
Cassian took a sip from his mug—green tea with a twist of lemon, just how he liked it— and smiled. “Still nosy as ever, I see.”
Keeping his smile easy, Cassian tried not to glance back towards the bookshop door. Nesta had never met one of his previous flings before and he was keen to keep it that way. They were so close to being something and it was all he wanted—it was all he had wanted for a long time. He hadn’t even glanced at another female for Cauldron’s knows how long. And he knew how awful it felt to meet someone your mate had bedded. Even now, the face of the males Nesta had taken home were burnt behind his retinas. He’d never be able to forget them.
“I prefer discerning,” Nakeisha corrected Cassian with a grin. “Two mugs is a bit of a giveaway, General.”
There must have been a telling expression that Cassian was unable to erase from his expression, because Nakeisha’s eyes gleamed again.
“Don’t tell me you’ve finally been pinned down?” she laughed softly. It was not a jealous or bitter sound, only amused, as if he had defied all odds. Cassian could hardly blame her. For the few hundred years they had known one another Cassian had been the definition of a philanderer. “I definitely had bets on me before you.”
Cassian shot Nakeisha a disbelieving look. He’d always thought she was more unlikely than he. She was too independent and loved her own company too much. Cassian had never given it much contemplation, but if he were to really think about it, he suspected Nakeisha hated the idea of being chained down, whereas Cassian had just never met anybody who had captivated him enough to put his job second. Until he’d met Nesta, that was.
But Cassian didn’t voice any of that. Instead, he asked as smoothly as possible, “Is it so unbelievable?”
Nakeisha just shrugged. Unable to help himself, Cassian squinted through the wintry sunlight in the direction of the shop door just as Nesta emerged with a heavy-looking shopping bag in one hand. When her eyes found his, he gestured to her with a steaming mug.
She took her time crossing the cobbled street, her posture unfazed, her expression blank. Even though Nesta’s skin was dried with sweat and some of her hair had escaped her braid, she looked unforgivingly beautiful. Training outside in the winter sunshine had left her skin rosy and her eyes icy bright. And those leathers… well, they clung to her enviable curves which had finally filled out now she was eating three meals a day.
“I see you bought the whole shop,” Cassian remarked drily as Nesta drew up beside him.
He handed her a mug of chai. Slowly, Nesta reached out to wrap her slim fingers around the porcelain. She peered into the mug and then back at him with a perfectly arched eyebrow, silently asking how he’d got his hands on her favourite drink.
“I know a place,” he remarked off-handedly. Smugly.
She nodded in thanks. He watched her take a small sip and then those steely blue eyes moved to Nakeisha.
“Who are you.”
Straight to the point, as always. No introductions, no niceties. It was so Nesta that Cassian would have laughed, if he hadn’t been so concerned about how this would go.
Nakeisha wasn't stupid. She was always discreet. She slept with enough people not to be deluded enough that their odd tumble between the sheets meant anything more then pleasure with no strings attached. So, Cassian wasn’t surprised at Nakeisha’s genuine, friendly smile, even as she did give herself away by shifting uneasily onto her other foot.
There was no doubt in Cassian’s mind that Nakeisha recognised Nesta. Everyone in Velaris knew who Nesta was. They knew what had happened between Cassian and Nesta during the war, too. What had happened in the year after… There was no such thing as privacy when you had saved the whole of Prythian from destruction.
“I’m Nakeisha.” A painful pause constricted the air around them in which Cassian realised Nesta was going to be deliberately unforthcoming.
“This is Nesta Archeron,” Cassian said, hoping his tone was easy and unaffected. Even though it wasn’t needed, Cassian embellished, “Feyre’s sister.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Nesta,” Nakeisha said warmly, and, to Cassian’s surprise, bowed her head in respect. “Thank you for everything you did for us in the war.”
There was a long awkward beat where Cassian felt the prickle of Nesta’s magic across his skin, but then Nesta dipped her head. It was, Cassian supposed, the most she could muster without either turning on her heel or allowing mist to seep from her fingertips. Even now, she did not like to bring up the war.
Swallowing thickly, Nakeisha glanced uncertainly at Cassian before she brought her gaze back to Nesta. “Cassian and I were just talking about Hogmanay. Will you both be at the party tonight?”
Nesta twisted to look questioningly up at Cassian. “Not tonight,” he told them both. In truth, he hadn’t been to a Hogmanay party since before Amarantha’s reign. “Just family.”
“Well, have a lovely time. Another day older, General.” Nakeisha quipped teasingly as she unfurled herself from where she was leaning against a lamppost.
“I said I’d meet Elain in an hour,” Nesta told Cassian stiffly as they watched Nakeisha disappear into the throng of fae. “Which way to the House?”
All it took was one wave of Cassian’s hand to their right for Nesta to start moving. She walked with such purpose that Cassian stopped himself from offering to fly them back and set after her instead, matching her stride with his long legs.
After a while of walking in silence, Cassian remarked, “You’re quiet. Were you irritated to find the bookshop lacking in smutty romance, sweetheart?”
Cassian had hoped for her to snipe at him or fall prey to his teasing but she did neither. Instead, she replied faintly, as if she was somewhere else entirely, “Some of us don’t live to hear the sound of our own voice.
Cassian ignored her comment. Tried to take the books from her hand, instead.
Nesta stopped him with a heart-stopping glare that Cassian suspected would have killed him if it weren’t for the immunity he had built up over the last nine months.
He held up his hands in defeat and flashed her a cheeky grin. “How’s the chai?”
“Good.” Then, “Do you always charm your way into free crockery or is this just an uncanny coincidence?”
“I can’t help it if everybody loves me, sweetheart,” he parried and Gods above he had a death wish as he winked at her before he could check himself.
Nesta snorted. It was not soft like usual. It was abrupt and sharp. “And did you sleep with the cafe owner, too?”
And there it was.
Keeping his face neutral, Cassian feigned ignorance. “Contrary to popular belief I haven’t bedded the entire female population. Are you referring to anyone in particular?”
Nesta snorted again. And really, Cassian wasn’t all that surprised. Nesta knew. She always knew when it came to him.
“Oh please; formidable figure, beautiful face, sizeable assets?” Nesta counted a different finger as she listed each trait. “I’d have bet all my money on it even if she hadn’t been looking at you like that.”
Cassian smirked. If he was lucky, he wasn’t imagining the jealousy lining her voice. “And how was Nakeisha looking at me, Nesta?”
“Well, am I right?” Nesta demanded, ignoring his question.
“You do realise that you just described yourself,” Cassian drawled. A slow grin spread across his face as he took his time looking Nesta up and down. Satisfaction hummed through him as her irritation spiked. If she wasn’t going to answer his question he wouldn’t answer hers, either.
But then he realised how stupid he was being. He grabbed for her spare hand, wound his fingers through hers and she didn’t pull away, even though Cassian could tell she thought about it. Her irises were wisps of metallic smoke—a moving, magical, captivating thing—and he felt his magic pulse.
“We can play this game if you like,” he told her in a low, hoarse voice that bordered on dangerous, “where I tell you everyone I’ve fucked—which would be hard, by the way—and you could do the same for me. But I can promise you that it will be tiring and it will just make us both furious.”
Nesta pressed her lips together.
Cassian sighed. “Fine. Shall I ask you about the male yesterday?”
Anger and irritation swept free from her expression as Nesta frowned. “Erol?”
Huffing, Nesta slipped her hand out of his as they began to walk again. At first, Cassian thought it was out of ire, but then she transferred the bag of books to that hand and Cassian realised that she was just struggling with their weight. Clearly, the heavy items were starting to take their toll.
“I didn’t fuck him.”
Cassian didn’t say anything. Thought of the way Erol had looked at Nesta with such familiarity Cassian had wanted to snarl at him—had growled at him—like some feral beast that could not see sense. Plucked the heavy bag from Nesta’s hands, needing to do something, that wouldn’t end up with him kissing her to show her just how much he didn’t want to be having this fucking conversation and would much rather be worshipping her instead.
“He was—is—my friend,” Nesta continued after a long while. “He watched out for me—stopped me doing anything reckless. I didn’t just go to taverns to fuck and drink. I liked the music. So did Erol. He lost his wife in the attack on Velaris. I think it took his mind away from things.”
A pause stretched out for a few beats too long as Cassian blinked. He hadn’t been expecting that. Hadn’t known Nesta had formed a friendship during that time, even if it was only in the barest capacity. A bitter sadness wound around his ribcage that Cassian could not shake. He couldn’t determine if it was his or Nesta’s.
Before them, the mountain of sandstone climbed like an unending wall before it disappeared into the clouds. Silently, Cassian gathered Nesta into his arms and spread his wings wide so he could launch them into the skies.
There was so much he could say, Cassian realised, as he began to fly them up towards the flat-top peak. But Nesta…she had offered another slice of herself, so he only gathered her closer to his body and bowed his head until his lips were resting on the top of her head.
“Did you visit the theatre or opera house whilst you were here?” Cassian asked into the golden brown strands of her hair.
“I—“ Nesta craned her neck to look up at him. She’d clearly not expected him to change the subject. “No.”
“You’ll like them,” Cassian responded simply. Kissed her crown once. Twice. “I’ll take you next time.”
Nesta’s returning nod had warmth travelling down Cassian’s bones despite the winter chill. It was an acknowledgement that there would be a next time in Velaris for them. That she would walk the streets with him rather than alone.
“Come and bathe with me,” Cassian blurted after Nesta’s retreating back after he had touched them down upon the balcony.
Nesta paused at the entryway to the floor to ceiling glass that led into the House. A faint smile played upon her lips. It was not a smirk but it wasn’t soft, either. Amused, perhaps. And… pleased. “I wasn’t lying when I said I was meeting Elain.”
“I know,” Cassian assured her, suddenly inexplicably nervous. His fingers wanted to tremble at the anticipation that came with pressing her against the bathroom tiles until their bodies melted into one. “We’ve got time.”
Slowly, Nesta turned. Stalked over to Cassian on her strong lean legs. The movement was measured and sure and so fucking intoxicating it felt like a fist had closed over Cassian’s windpipe. Nesta enthralled him. The two of them were both cat and mouse. Predator and prey. And the way they switched roles with virtually no indication of when it was going to happen thrilled him, the uncertainty of it addictive and sweet and sinful.
The hairs on his arms and legs—at the back of his damned neck—pricked to attention as Nesta closed the distance between them. Cassian felt the heat of her. The desire that coiled around her belly and his. Their scent smoky and ancient. It lit up his senses and his nostrils flared, his wings rustled and a hand wound its way through her hair before he even had a moment to catch himself.
A hitch of breath was the only indication of Nesta’s surprise and that vanilla and jasmine thickened as she tilted her head, exposing the tantalising column of her neck.
Cassian hardened instinctively as his other hand came to pull her hips to his body, until their bodies were perfectly aligned.
“I’ll make it worth your while.” His voice was as dry as sandpaper—scratchy.
Nesta shivered as if his words had broken her, but when she leant up onto her tiptoes, her lips hovering inches from his, she appeared nothing but sure.
The phantom touch had Cassian groaning from somewhere deep inside of him. His siphons winked as magic coursed through him, pulsing in tandem with his blood and heart.
“If we bathe I won’t see Elain.” Nesta’s murmured words caressed his mouth and Cassian groaned again, all sense of his self-restraint lost as he captured her lips with his.
“Fuck Elain,” Cassian rasped when he finally pulled away. Nesta’s eyes were icy mirrors as her eyelashes fluttered open and he could see the reflection of his burning hazel irises—the blatant desire in them that he could not check. “Who needs sisters anyway?”
Nesta’s laugh was beautiful and smoky with a hint of wickedness. She levelled him with a look until Cassian realised that she would not relent, even if he could scent that she wanted him as much as he wanted her. “I do.”
Cassian searched her expression. The seriousness that had taken ahold of her features. “I know.”
Nesta kissed him again, firmly this time, leaving no opportunity for him to try and persuade her otherwise before she stepped away from him.
“Enjoy your cold shower,” Nesta called, tossing the words over her shoulder with a sly smile, before she slipped through the glass doors and disappeared.
Tags: @arinbelle @superspiritfestival @sayosdreams @perseusannabeth @mylittlebigplanet @biggestwingspan-az @bellsqueen @ekaterinakostrova @bookstantrash @prophecyerised @rainbowcheetah512 @awesomelena555 @wannawriteyouabook @callmestarky @lovelynesta @melphss @darkshadowqueensrule @laylaameer01 @a-trifling-matter @grouchycritic7794 @thalia-2-rose @champanheandluxxury @swankii-art-teacher @princessconsuela02 @lavendergoomsltd @little-diyosa @princessofmerchants-reads @jeakat @sjm-things @imwritingthesewords @nestable @inejbrekkxr @silvernesta @inyourmindeye @amelie775 @helen-the-weirdo @pizzaneverdisappoints @wishfulimaginings @trash-for-nessian @my-fan-side @sophilightwood @valkyriesupremacy @vidalinav @onceupona-chaos @inardour @thesunremembersyourface @teagoddess99 @ellies-iced-coffee @nehemikkele @misswonderflower @nessiantrashh @miamorganvel18 @kawaiteacup @nestaa-stan @castielspelvis @haigrr @dont-take-life-to-seriously @pixieelea @lanyjoy-13 @dontgetsalmonella @thewayshedreamed @fangirlishwandering
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duskandstarlight · 17 days ago
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Embers & Light (Chapter 39 smutty teaser #2, Nessian)
Notes: A second teaser for those of you thirsty for the next smutty chapter. I’m not sure when this will be up just yet, but I’ll let you know as soon as I know :)
Just a warning that this is smut... NSFW ;)
Burning pleasure clambered to its peak and Nesta’s eyes grew so heavy they fluttered closed. Something unintelligible left her lips as her head tipped back into the heart of his chest.
When her arms wound around his neck, her knuckles accidentally grazing the leather of his wings, Cassian part-snarled, part-roared. Swore. Held her even tighter as his wings snapped out high and mighty behind him. They wrapped around Nesta’s body before Cassian’s pleasure-fogged mind could stop them curling towards her, starved for her touch.
Fuck, he was unhinged. So desperate for relief—in the scent and feel of his mate—that his control was barely there. Enough so that he didn’t react when Nesta reached out her hand—
Sense knocked Cassian for six only when Nesta’s fingers were millimetres from touching the membrane. He drew back his wings so fast the air around them stormed, but he swooped in before surprise could register on Nesta’s face. Dipped his chin and coaxed her head even further back so he could claim her mouth.
The taste of her lips was as vital as breathing, the scrape of her nails on his scalp grounding. He groaned into her mouth at the same time as she whimpered. His hand was still moving between her legs, interchanging the same three patterns over and over again, mixing things up as soon as Nesta’s moans grew too untamed: he wanted to draw out her pleasure, not sate it with a few choice strokes.
Tags (let me know if you want to be added/removed): @arinbelle @superspiritfestival @sayosdreams @perseusannabeth @mylittlebigplanet @biggestwingspan-az @bellsqueen @ekaterinakostrova @bookstantrash @prophecyerised @rainbowcheetah512 @awesomelena555 @wannawriteyouabook @lovelynesta @melphss @darkshadowqueensrule @laylaameer01 @a-trifling-matter @grouchycritic7794 @thalia-2-rose @champanheandluxxury @swankii-art-teacher @princessconsuela02 @lavendergoomsltd @princessofmerchants-reads @jeakat @sjm-things @imwritingthesewords @nestable @inejbrekkxr @silvernesta @inyourmindeye @amelie775 @helen-the-weirdo @pizzaneverdisappoints @wishfulimaginings @trash-for-nessian @my-fan-side @sophilightwood @valkyriesupremacy @vidalinav @onceupona-chaos @inardour @thesunremembersyourface @teagoddess99 @ellies-iced-coffee @nehemikkele @misswonderflower
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duskandstarlight · a month ago
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Embers & Light (Chapter 37, Nessian fic)
Notes: Hi everyone, sorry for the huge delay in posting! I promise I'm still continuing with this fic, but life is a little hectic right now so I haven't been able to post as much. This chapter got so long I had to split it into two in order to get an update to you this Sunday. Because of that, I'm hoping to post the second part Monday 28th-Wednesday 30th, so keep an eye out!
Let me know what you think... Lots of plot this chapter, so sorry for the information dump, but it's all important ;)
As always, your comments and reblogs are EVERYTHING. If I haven't replied to you, please know that I have read it and smiled. Thank you for taking the time to let me know you've enjoyed my writing--it's really what keeps me going.
Lastly, please forgive any typos or inconsistencies. I don't have a beta!
Chapter Thirty-Seven Nesta
As always, Nesta woke before sunrise. It was a habit that had soon been stamped into her upon arriving in Illyria. Early mornings assisting the widows training—and before that, fighting with Cassian at the top of the mountain—hadn’t allowed her to laze about in bed.
The quiet, red-veined hallways weren’t eery as she walked down them with Sala padding softly by her side. No, the sandstone had never reminded Nesta of blood and death, even when she’d first arrived at the House. Instead, it struck Nesta that the mountain residence had always seemed as if it were alive—its many hallways veins channelling to a beating, sentient heart.
Not expecting anybody to be up before dawn, Nesta summoned a book as she approached the dining room. With a gentle thump, Heroicis fell into her outstretched hands. The leather was soft and supple against her palms—well worn and loved—and Nesta tucked it beneath one arm, before she murmured her thanks to the House and stepped through the archway.
To Nesta’s surprise she found Maya seated at the table cradling a steaming mug of tea. For once, the twin didn’t look collected but tired and… grievously sad—a female who had already lived a long, weary life and had the faint lines around her mouth and eyes to prove it. Cassian had told Nesta that Maya had been visibly upset upon hearing the news of Marsh’s death, and whilst Nesta could not understand how Maya could feel the loss of someone who had been so unimaginably cruel, she was also learning that it was not her place to judge someone’s individual journey and experiences.
For a few seconds, Maya did not notice Nesta—as if she were too lost in thought. It gave Nesta the time to clock the tendrils of hair threaded with grey that had come free from the normally immaculate double buns gathered at the nape of Maya’s neck. Allowed Nesta to scent the citrus winds and salt from the Sidra, which indicated the twin had been out flying the skies with her eldest daughter.
Then Maya’s head snapped to the doorway and the tight, vacant expression vanished upon seeing Nesta.
Maya straightened with surprise and her drooped wings lifted, tucking neatly into her back. “Good morning.”
“Good morning,” Nesta replied with a nod. She tried to put the female at ease with a rare smile but the movement still felt foreign enough to her that Nesta was afraid it came out as more of a grimace. “I didn’t expect to find anybody here so early.”
Maya’s smile was a brave effort but didn’t succeed in eradicating the sorrow that swallowed the light from her eyes. “I snuck off to have some time to myself,” she admitted.
Unsure of what to say, Nesta simply nodded. She knew Samra had developed separation anxiety since she had been kidnapped. Nesta didn’t blame the girl. She knew what it was like to be taken from your bed in the dead of night. How tendrils of darkness and despair wove themselves around you until the world seemed nothing but inky black—not in an aid to terrify you, but to shield you from the horrors of what you were to endure.
“I can leave you to your thoughts if you’d prefer,” Nesta supplied after a beat of a moment. She took a meaningful step backwards to show she was willing. Held up Heroicis. “I was only going to read. That activity is best suited to the library, anyway.”
Hazel eyes—brown and green with shards of gold—slid to the book in Nesta’s hands, before they dragged slowly back to Nesta. The movement appeared to take a lot of effort and Nesta wondered when Maya had last slept, as the female blurted, “Please—don’t leave on my account.” Another smile, a little tremulous this time as Maya gestured to the seat opposite her, flustered. “I could do with some adult company.”
The scent of desperation and honesty intertwined with the scent of snowdrops and crisp winter air wound its way through Nesta. It was enough to inform Nesta that Maya was not being polite for the sake of appearances—she truly did wish her to stay.
Seating herself opposite the twin, Nesta placed Heroicis on the table in front of her. A steaming mug of chai appeared moments later and Nesta silently cast up her thanks to the House as she took a long, slow sip. It was perfectly balanced: sweet, spicy and creamy.
“Did Lord Cassian have a good birthday yesterday?” Maya asked once Nesta had set down her mug. “It was kind of him to invite us to the Hogmanay celebrations.”
Nerves bubbled in Nesta’s stomach as the female spoke, and unable to deal with another’s emotions so early in the morning, Nesta slammed up a shield of adamant steel coated in ice. Blessed quiet came in its wake and every muscle turned slack, as if it were heaving a collective sigh of relief.
With the reprieve came snapshots of memory: the exact look on Cassian’s handsome face when he had realised he was holding his mother’s lullaby in his hands. The thick rumble of his voice. How he’d hugged her with his arms and wings, cupped her face with his hands, brushed his lips over her cheek.
A faint smile tugged at the corners of Nesta’s lips. She tucked the memory away, safe between the strips of bone protecting her heart. “Yes,” she replied. “He did.”
A chattered chirp bounced off the stone walls. Startled Nesta and Maya turned their attention to the long panel of glass that ran across the entirety of the window, separating the dining room from the balcony. Before it sat Sala, her ears twitching back and forth as she watched birds sail through the sky.
The manticore’s tail swished and the silver fire at the tip blazed harmlessly.
An amused sound came from Maya as Sala let out another indignant chirrup and shot to her feet. A bird had unknowingly tempted fate by landing on the balcony and if it were not for the closed doors, Nesta knew there would be nothing left but a few feathers.
“You are feeling better?”
Nesta tried not to blink or allow any surprise to register across her face. “Better?” she asked, dragging her gaze away from the window.
Maya met Nesta’s eyes over the rim of her mug. “You were not quite yourself yesterday evening.”
Instinctively, Nesta’s spine stiffened. In her mind’s eye, that icy wall began to stack up; glacial blocks crusted with ice scraping a gritty symphony as they slid into place.
But then… she loosed a breath. Thought of how Cassian had come to find her and nobody at the table had judged her for being late. How they seemed to dissect that the crowds had triggered a deep wound inside of her.
And she had told Cassian that she didn’t want to run away from her trauma any longer. And that meant addressing it and speaking of it when necessary.
Nerves ate at her insides, the anticipation enough to have her itching to squirm. To run away. But she ordered her body to stay. Took another deep breath.
“I got stuck in the procession crowds on the way to the restaurant,” Nesta admitted. Her tone was a little too short, but the concession… it was a start. “I get overwhelmed in crowds,” she elaborated after an awkward pause, her voice betraying her as it wavered.
Desperate to do something, Nesta flipped Heroicis open to a random page. Made herself look up and meet Maya’s eyes, even though it took all of her will. Dared herself to do it—to speak about her trauma and turn it from the shadow at her back to a fully formed being of flesh and blood that she could acknowledge.
“I get flashbacks of things that happened to me.” Grabbing hands hauling her from bed. The splintered scream from Cassian as the King of Hybern broke bone. Elain’s screams as she was hauled into the Cauldron. The snap of bone as her father’s neck snapped. “It makes it hard to breathe. I get…”
“Lost?” Maya supplied gently with a soft kind of wisdom when Nesta trailed off.
Nesta nodded.
“Whenever I was required in the bedroom after my sister died, I’d just become… vacant. As if my self had left my body.” The twin raised a hand above her head to demonstrate and Nesta caught how her hand shook. Perhaps it was the first time that Maya had spoken to anybody about what had happened to her. How Marsh had abused her. “I’d be up here somewhere looking down,” she finished, “and there was nobody to pull me back into myself. Sometimes I’d float like that for weeks, detached and hollow. Not really there at all.”
“Yes,” Nesta replied thickly, because that was how she often felt; separate from her body. She wanted to swallow down the lump in her throat, but she couldn’t. “Like that.”
Maya nodded knowingly, but the understanding radiating from the female wasn’t dismissive. Instead, Nesta felt… companionship, as if someone could finally relate to her. “It’s exhausting to drag yourself back. But you are feeling a little better today?”
Nesta managed to dip her chin into a silent yes. She thought of Cassian’s face as he had realised what the gift was before him. How his cheeks had grown damp and how Nesta had felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude and affection—so fierce it had threatened to rob her of speech. Those emotions had buried deep inside of Nesta’s blood without her bidding them to. They had mingled with her magic, as if they were vital and were stocking themselves away for a time of need.
The trauma and exhaustion had been worth the battle for that sliver of moment: when Cassian had been offered a fragment of himself that had been lost. When Nesta had not brought someone sadness or anger, but true joy.
It took Nesta a while to pull away from her swirling thoughts. When her vision slid back into focus, she noticed Maya’s gaze had snagged on Heroicis.
“I’ve been thinking about your son,” Nesta confessed. She closed the book again and ran her hand down the buttery brown leather of the book. “About what you told Cassian yesterday. I thought I’d look for clues as to why Kallon was draining the girls of blood.”
Cassian had quickly detailed everything Maya had told him once they had arrived back at the House after dinner. It had been a tactic to draw Nesta out of the vacant emptiness inside of her own head and it had worked. But it had not been something she’d dwelled on over the evening. Only in the morning had Nesta been dragged by sleep with a vision of Heroicis and something ebbing at the tip of her tongue—a stanza that glimmered behind a vale she couldn’t quite access. It whispered her name: Nesta, Nesta, Nesta.
Maya’s expression was faraway and Nesta wondered if the female was being dragged away by the tentacles of memory.
“A passage that came to me in sleep,” Nesta confessed, “but then it slid away. I thought I’d try and find it.”
“I’ve been wanting to look through it, too,” Maya admitted, “but my copy is in Ironcrest. I don’t suppose I’ll see it again.”
From the way the female spoke, Nesta could tell the book meant a lot to her. Perhaps like Cassian when he was a youngling, it was the only possession Maya truly owned.
“Perhaps we could send Azriel to fetch it for you,” Nesta suggested, but even as she said it a sense of doom tugged at her. It was one thing for the Night Court to take girls from Ironcrest, but for them to have taken Maya—Kallon’s birth mother, no matter how guarded that secret was—was a dangerous thing. To creep into the Ironcrest residence and take Maya’s possessions was like prodding a sore bear with a stick. It was perilous and unwise.
If it was not for the fact that Kallon’s birthright would be questioned, Nesta had a suspicion that Kallon would send out a memorandum detailing that his mother had been kidnapped as soon as he came to claim the throne. If he came to claim the throne. There had still been no word that he had returned to Ironcrest.
Nesta was not stupid enough to believe that he would not come. He was surely biding his time, waiting to bond with the sword before he returned in a sweeping, dramatic entrance worthy of a star-born Prince.
“I do not think it would be wise for anybody to return,” Maya said thickly. Her eyes were rueful as she lifted them to Nesta. The twin cleared her throat. Gestured to the book in front of Nesta with another tremulous wave. “This copy belongs to the library below the mountain?”
“No, this is Cassian’s,” Nesta admitted. Then, she shot Maya a creeping, secret smile. “I was surprised as you are to discover that he has read epic poetry.”
Shaking her head, Maya let out a huff of breath. “Lord Cassian continues to surprise me. He is not what the warriors whisper of.”
Nesta tilted her head at Maya, but the twin was staring down at the table again as if she was very faraway—lost in memory. “What do you mean?”
Maya blinked. Raised a shoulder to her ear and kept it there for a beat too long, as if she was lost in contemplation.
She blew out a breath and her shoulder slowly dropped, like a deflating balloon. She tucked a stray strand of dark hair behind a rounded ear. “He is portrayed by other Illyrians as wrathful and a mighty warrior. I thought he would be savage with a short fuse. But he is not that at all. He is… kind. He cares. It is a quality you rarely see in Illyrian males.”
Nesta thought of the cottage nestled in the meadow. Cassian had offered his home to Maya and the girls for no other reason than he wanted them to find peace in Velaris. He was kind—impossibly so—and that blended into everything he did. Yes, Cassian could be formidable on the battlefield, but each move was thought out and orchestrated. He was not savage and bloodthirsty—a brute free of morals as she had once implied.
And Cassian’s home in the flatlands… it had felt peaceful and rejuvenating. Nesta hadn’t detected anything seeping from the earth like it had in the widows camp and at Spearhead. The blessed quiet had allowed Nesta to soak up the surroundings: the winter meadow and the scent of salt on the wind.
Perhaps the reason Cassian had picked the cottage in the first place was because it emitted nothing but a sense of… place—belonging—even though he didn’t possess the empath skills. Had Cassian subliminally picked up on the aura of the land? Either way, Maya and the girls could be content there, if they wanted to, and that opportunity from Cassian was just another way of demonstrating what sort of fae he was.
“He is a good male,” Nesta said, clamping down on the emotion that wanted to surge inside of her. “Cassian showed you the cottage yesterday?”
Maya blinked and something cleared behind her eyes. “Yes. It is too much—”
“He wants to do it,” Nesta assured Maya. “Allow him to. Allow someone to help you and the girls. He’s offering you a new start.”
Shame stained Maya’s tan cheeks. The twin looked away. “I don’t even have a means of paying him.”
“Cassian doesn't care about money.”
“Even still,” Maya retorted, raising her chin a fraction, “it is not the Illyrian way to accept charity.”
“Illyrians are stubborn,” Nesta clipped brusquely. “From what I have seen, Illyrians would rather freeze to death than owe someone, but it does not make you weak to accept help when you need it.
“It’s drummed into us from birth,” Maya retorted. “We are a proud race.”
“You have helped us with Kallon,” Nesta countered. “You have assisted us by parting with integral information. That is debt enough.”
Maya looked stricken. “It is not enough—“
“Is it not?” Nesta challenged. She leant forwards, driven by some internal force. “I know you have lived a longer and harder life than I have, and I do not mean to profess that I have more life experience than you, but staying in Illyria showed me that it is never too late to start again,” Nesta told Maya. “Perhaps you just need a new surroundings to be able to do that.”
“Illyria did that for you?” Maya asked in surprise, her brows lifting in surprise. Bitterness stirred into her voice. “It is not a place many thrive.”
Nesta shrugged. Thought of the snow capped mountains and the triangular tops of the pine trees brushed with frost. Thought of how the landscape stretched for miles and miles from her view at the top of the mountain she and Cassian had first started training at. How it had evoked a sense of freedom and… space. “I needed distance from my sisters and my past. Illyria gave me that”
“From the war?”
Nesta picked at a loose thread of the table cloth. “No. Maybe. I was ruined long before that. I got lost for a long time, I waded through the past and my mistakes like I was caught in quicksand. But…I feel better now. I have a purpose.”
“To train the females?”
“Yes,” Nesta agreed with a shrug. “But also in myself. For so long in my life I didn’t act for myself or others when it was needed. My younger sister is the reason I’m alive and that… it will forever haunt me.” Looking up from the table, Nesta met Maya’s eyes. “Past mistakes and trauma can either eat you whole or teach you to be better. I am trying to do the latter, but it’s hard. But if I can do it, so can you. So can your girls.”
Maya lifted out of her seat so she could reach across the large table and squeeze Nesta’s hand. “You are wise for your age, Nesta Archeron.”
Nesta dipped her chin. Changed the subject, because she was done laying herself bare. Yet, even though it had taken a lot from her, she felt… lighter, somehow. As if she had lifted a load from her shoulders.
“Do you believe in the prophecy?” Nesta asked bluntly.
“Yes,” Maya replied, but her attention was elsewhere—at the arched doorway that led into the corridor. Nesta heard footsteps in the hall. Knew who they belonged to without having to listen. “I believe in the fundamentals of it,” Maya started, “but—”
Cassian entered the room and Maya fell silent.
His eyes went straight to Nesta. For a wisp of a moment, Nesta felt relief, but when she stretched her cast a rope of magic out to him, feeling for an emotion, she was only met with a shield of fire.
“Ladies,” Cassian greeted breezily, pausing in the doorway to say hello to Sala who had padded over from her spot by the window.
Cassian absent-mindedly ruffled Sala’s fur, his focus steadfast on the two females at the table. His hair was tied back in a haphazard top knot—a look that was secretly Nesta’s favourite—and he was dressed in his usual leathers, save his jacket which was not needed in the balmy temperature of the House.
“It seems you have both risen early this morning,” he began, and Nesta could tell from the glint of mischief in his eyes that nothing good was going to come from his mouth. “Tell me we’re about to eat breakfast and aren't partaking in a book club. I’ve not read whatever risqué romance is on the agenda.”
Refraining from rolling her eyes in exasperation, Nesta eyed him. Figured out how best to partake in the verbal battle that was about to ensue.
“Are you suggesting that Maya indulges in smut?” Nesta asked crisply.
Maya choked on a laugh.
Heat flooded Cassian’s tan cheeks and Nesta bit down hard on her lip to stop her icy facade from cracking: Cassian had a habit of speaking without thinking and this was a prime example.
“Apologies,” he told Maya with a rustle of his wings.
But Maya only shook her head. Stifled the smile that was halfway to her lips. Her hazel eyes sparkled with amusement. It made them take on a quality close to Cassian’s—the shards of amber in them glinting to gold.
Scratching the back of his neck like an admonished youngling, Cassian admitted, “That was assuming of me. It’s all Nesta reads.”
A hiss dragged itself from between Nesta’s teeth and heat swirled beneath her skin, but Nesta wasn’t sure it was from anger. Rather it was the way Cassian looked at her—that overfamiliar, beautiful gaze that made the back of her neck prickle.
A slash of a smile crept across Cassian’s face, as if he had dissected the thorny mask she was wearing and had seen what lay beneath it.
He opened his mouth to speak, but Maya cut in before silver began to mist from Nesta’s fingertips. “I was not permitted to read anything romantic at the Ironcrest residence,” she replied, taking a deliberate sip of tea.
The twin observed Cassian over the rim, her Illyrian eyes still twinkling like stars. “Perhaps I’ll have to start.”
A spark of surprise and panic kindled in the pit of Nesta’s belly as Cassian’s eyebrows shot upwards.
Snorting a laugh, Nesta carefully closed Heroicis. “To everyone’s surprise, you have actually read today’s book of choice.”
A wolfish grin spread across Cassian’s face as he spied the book on the table. Whilst others recoiled or grew uncertain in the face of Nesta’s fire, he delighted in it. “The oversized bat is full of surprises, sweetheart. Every Illyrian knows Heroicis.”
“Not every Illyrian owns a well-worn copy,” Maya corrected, eyeing Cassian with a raised eyebrow. Nesta supposed the male Illyrians rarely bothered with books, not when they were born and bred to spend their time in the training ground or in the skies, earning scars as they spilt sweat and blood.
Cassian shrugged at his elder. “I believe I told you I was familiar with the text—“ He broke off to stifle a yawn with a closed fist. When he opened his eyes, he pinned Nesta with a look. Rested a hand over his heart. “And you didn’t think to wake me for this impromptu gathering? I’m wounded.”
Maya, no doubt reading the insinuation behind his words with the art of someone who had lived many human lives, became politely fixated with pouring herself a fresh cup of tea.
But there was no wash of embarrassment. Nesta was not ignorant enough to ignore the fact that his scent wound around her like a comforting mist. That in itself was enough for those they surrounded themselves with to understand what was happening behind closed doors. And whilst human Nesta would have been horrified to have her privacy invaded, fae Nesta could no longer find it in herself to care.
What she and Cassian did was their business. And so far, nobody had commented or intervened.
It had earned a respect Nesta did not know she could harbour for her sisters and Cassian’s friends and family. They had not meddled. Had not breathed a word or exchanged glances. Had not even blinked whilst she was in their vicinity.
So, Nesta’s brow only furrowed. Sleep was sacred to Cassian. He rarely had enough of it and when he did, Nesta knew it was often interspersed with nightmares. But he hadn’t had one last night, or at least, Nesta hadn’t been pulled from sleep by it, the taste of ash foul in her mouth.
In fact, Nesta barely remembered Cassian coaxing her into bed the night before. Her body had been burning for him, despite that thick coat of exhaustion that plagued her. Throughout the evening, she’d pushed away that tiredness that always came with an episode of battle trauma, but after she’d given Cassian the lullaby it had finally pierced through her shields and insisted that she sleep.
Cassian had known—he always seemed to know. Nesta faintly remembered his fingers combing through her hair and the soft caress of his breath on her skin. She had curled into him, her nerves purring at the feel of his hands on her scalp, before everything had fallen away into fragments of broken dreams and ethereal voices.
When Nesta had woken, he was still facing her, his hands clutched in her hair and an impossibly large wing draped over her side. Cassian was… beautiful, Nesta couldn’t deny that. He wasn’t beautiful in the way Rhys or Azriel were. Instead, he was wild and rugged and huge, carved out of the untameable Illyrian elements. His body was adorned with scars, her favourite of which cut though one of his eyebrows.
It had taken every ounce of her will not to trace it with her fingertips and watch him wake under her touch. Nesta had never had that urge before; to gobble up an image until it was imprinted on your memory like a kiss. She had always been desperate to get males out of her bed rather than keep them in it. Once she was sated—or satisfied enough—Nesta wanted them out. Wanted to wash them from her skin until she was scrubbed clean.
But with Cassian she wanted to stay and that terrified her. Even without sex her body yearned to be beside him or wrapped in his arms and wings. It settled her mind and blood. Made everything fall silent—a rare, blessed relief of simply existing rather than coping.
Yet now, thoughts barrelled through her, and that fear—that knowledge—flared enough that Cassian cocked that scarred eyebrow at her.
Nesta made herself meet his stare. Didn’t back away, even though she wanted to blush at how vulnerable she had been the night prior. How vulnerable he’d been and how she’d wanted him so badly she’d almost been shaking with it. Hadn’t thought herself able to resist pressing her mouth to his and begging for him to touch her.
Blood rushed to her face so fiercely that Nesta cast her eyes down to the book in front of her.
Out of the corner of her eye, Nesta caught Maya looking between them with faint bemusement. In the corner of her eye, Nesta saw Cassian pull out a chair beside Maya and settle into it. The outline of him blurred and shifted as he slid his wings into the slit of the chairs low back.
“You were sleeping,” Nesta retorted simply. She tried not to pay any heed to the mixture of disappointment and relief that washed through her at the distance he imposed across the table.
Nesta didn’t know what she wanted from him. Couldn’t reconcile her feelings with the demons that whispered and lured her into a spiral of thinking that tasted an awful lot like despair.
“So, you stole my book and tracked down Maya?” Cassian asked .
The ghost of his smile made the emerald star around his pupils glint.
“I was already at the breakfast table,” Maya intervened. A smile twitched at the twin’s mouth. “It was all a happy coincidence.”
Then, the joviality from Maya expression withered away. In the hallway was the scuffle of two sets of feet and shrill whispering—Samra and… Ailie.
Nesta knew that the eldest sister barely left the rooms Maya and the girls had been appointed—save for at night, when she leapt out the window and flew through the sky.
“Please—” Maya began. Her eyes were panicked and pleading, but Nesta didn’t allow the twin to finish. She knew what Maya meant. Had seen the twin glance desperately at Heroicis, wishing that it would vanish—for any possible trace of the reason her daughters had been so greatly maimed to be willed away in their presence.
The House vanished the book into thin air. In its place came food items—pastries and steaming bowls of porridge. Eggs and freshly baked breaks. Fruit and jam.
It seemed the House was trying to impress the girls.
“Nanay?” Samra whispered uncertainly in Illyrian as she stepped into the dining room. She was clutching tightly at her sister’s hand, her grip iron. Relief washed over the girl’s expression at seeing her mother, as if she hadn’t expected to be reunited with her.
From the apprehensive look of Ailie, she had not wanted to come exploring the House with her sister. Her expression was dark and conflicted, and she radiated an aura of wanting to disengage with the world entirely.
Nesta knew what it was like to deliberately cut all ties. Being remote and insular was a blessed relief at first, but it grew into a poison.
The wooden legs of Maya’s chair scraped against the floor as the twin launched to her feet and hurried over to her girls.
“Good morning, sinta,” Maya gushed at Samra and Ailie in turn, dropping a kiss to the crowds of both of their heads. “Come, eat with us.”
Maya smoothed a hand over Samra’s silky hair and peered into her daughter’s arresting eyes. They were the colour of sunshine-kissed honey. The love and reassurance shining on her mother’s face was enough to calm Samra. Her wings settled, dipping lower at her back and unspooling slightly as she let go of the worry that had obviously plagued her when she’d woken to find her mother gone.
Samra chanced a shy smile at Nesta as she sat beside her mother, but Ailie remained stock still, her dark eyes wary on Cassian.
“I can leave—” Cassian started.
The rich depth to his voice was startlingly masculine and Ailie flinched. But then she raised her chin in what Nesta knew to be an act of stubborn will. Her wings fluttered restlessly. The movement was akin to Sala’s tail when she was agitated and Nesta half-expected the girl to run through the glass doors and launch herself into the sky.
Sala slunk over to Ailie and pushed her head into the girl’s palm, a method of grounding that aways seemed to work on Nesta. It was the comforting sensation of the silky fur between her fingers and the gentle rise and fall of the manticore’s chest—life in the face of the unfailing pit of dark.
Silently, Nesta pulled out a seat for the girl and slid a pastry onto a plate, pushing the plate towards Ailie without a glance.
Maya had told Nesta that Ailie rarely ate, but Nesta knew from Maya that if anything could persuade her to consume something, it would be sweet rather than savoury.
Something tight lodged in Nesta’s throat as she thought of the smoothies Cassian had made her when she’d first come to the bungalow. How he’d spanned his fingers around her gaunt wrist and begged her to eat.
Blinking away the tears that threatened to spark in her eyes, Nesta glanced up to find a jug before her. The House had clearly read her thoughts.
When she poured some berry smoothie into a jug, she tried not to meet Cassian’s eyes. It would only open a flood.
Instead, Nesta turned to Ailie. The girl was staring at her with a bottomless sort of wrath in her eyes that made her appear other. Something else.
But Nesta was something else, so she didn’t cower. Only placed a glass in front of the girl before she poured one for herself.
Silence descended upon them all. Maya piled Samra’s plate with food and Nesta focussed on the clink of utensils on bowls and plates. She knew better than to push either of the girls into conversation. They would speak when they were well and ready. Whilst they had seen Cassian many times since the cave, both girls remained wary of males.
Nesta didn’t blame them. She hadn’t been able to bear the touch of anyone after Tomas had attacked her. And she had been lucky. She had managed to get away before it was too late. Neither Samra or Ailie had been so fortunate. Ailie, in particular, had suffered so greatly Nesta couldn’t even imagine the pain and anger the girl felt when she ascended out of the numb.
Ailie did not touch her pastry. Instead, she watched Cassian with the sort of haughty regard that Nesta had adopted many times herself: steel spine, cutting eyes that projected disdain, and an air choked with hostility.
The girl lifted her chin. Her dead hazel eyes did not glitter, but the green star around her pupils darkened—as if it was winking out. Unlike Samra, who had the whole yellow of Marsh’s eyes, Ailie’s were like her mother’s: hazel yet mesmerising. Ever-changing.
“You eat enough for five people,” she criticised with an abruptness that slashed around the room.
“Ailie,” Maya admonished with a flush of embarrassment, but Cassian only straightened. Set down his knife and fork together on his empty plate, pushed it away to make room for the porridge.
Casually, he readjusted his wings around the chair. Then, he picked up a spoon and unflinchingly met Ailie’s challenging stare. It was a carefully tailored look Cassian had levelled at Nesta when she had been purposefully cruel and calloused—when she had first come to Illyria and zwas being eaten alive by trauma.
“I train for hours every day. I need to fuel my body with what I can eat, otherwise I won’t be strong enough to remain in the ring,” Cassian told Ailie. “Speaking of which,” he added, his voice falling into something stricter as he purposefully placed a steaming bowl beside the pastry Nesta had plucked from a wicker basket, “porridge first, Archeron.”
In Nesta’s gut, she felt something laced with pine and musk. It was a sensation that was not reflected in Cassian’s expression, but Nesta knew what it was. A message that had pierced through her fortified shields—a hand passing through water.
Silently, Nesta pulled the bowl towards her and picked up a spoon. Her hands moved instinctively, her eyes not moving one inch from his face as she began to eat.
Ailie’s stare burned into Nesta’s skin, but then they were back on Cassian—hawklike and demanding. “What’s the difference,” she demanded. Her words were clipped and… irate, as if despite her better judgement, Ailie couldn’t help her curiosity and thirst for knowledge.
This time, Maya did not admonish Ailie for her tone. Instead, the twin remained quiet; watching, holding her breath, as if she couldn’t believe her daughter was finally speaking.
Ailie’s hands moved beneath the table. Sala had pushed her head into the girl’s lap and Ailie was twisting her hands over and over again into the manticore’s ruff, as if the comfort Sala was provided her with the courage to break free from the shackles of her trauma.
“Oats are slow burning carbohydrates,” Cassian began to explain, the information rattling off his tongue with an ease that betrayed how many times he’d recited it. “They fuel your body for longer, whereas foods high in sugar—like the pastry—burn too quickly to provide you with long-lasting energy in the training ring. So, Nesta should eat the porridge first and pastry second.”
Ailie’s loose hair swished in a shimmer of ebony as she cocked her head slightly to the side—enough that Nesta could tell that Cassian had truly piqued her interest. But the movement… it was pure predator. “If the pastry is bad, then perhaps it shouldn’t be eaten at all,” she countered with a clanging cold that coursed through the room.
Cassian merely shook his head. “No food is bad. It’s just about making smart food choices to fuel your body through the day.” He reached over the table. Plucked the pastry filled with dark chocolate that Nesta had put on her plate—her favourite.
“But,” he continued with an easy smile that sparked something within Nesta, “when something is covered in this much chocolate it would be rude not to enjoy it in moderation. I’ll earn it in the training ring and I know Nesta will, too.”
Three deliberate bites had Cassian polishing off Nesta’s pastry. And the male… he had the audacity to wink at Nesta as he swallowed.
Unable to help herself, Nesta’s eyes flitted to his neck. Tracked the way the knot of his throat bobbed. Thought of how she had licked and nibbled at it when her hand had been wrapped around him. How he’d groaned and the vibration had kissed her lips, before travelling down every nerve ending in her body.
Heat crashed over her like a wave breaking against hot sand. An involuntary hiss dragged from behind her teeth.
Another wink had Nesta near self-combusting, but she managed to wrangle herself under control. Trapped him with an intense glare that only set his eyes twinkling.
“Save that fire for the sparring ring, sweet—” he began, but Ailie cut him off.
“I want to be strong.”
A beat passed. A slow thump that was akin to a beating heart. Nesta’s skin cooled as rapidly as if she’d been plunged into an ice bath.
Maya didn’t seem to be breathing. A cup of tea was half-raised to her lips as she watched her daughter. Samra shrunk back into her chair, unsure, her wings tucked in tight.
Cassian didn’t so much as blink. “Then you should train so you can hold your own, just like your mother,” Cassian he replied seriously. “But it’s hard work—a commitment. Do you think you’re up for the challenge?”
“Yes,” Ailie bit out darkly, crossing her arms firmly across her chest. “I’m not a coward.”
“I didn’t think you were,” Cassian responded lightly. “We train every morning in Illyria. If you don’t want to come there I will organise someone to come to you—”
“I’ll come to Illyria,” Ailie interjected. “But I want to start today.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Cassian replied without hesitation. And the smile that he tossed Ailie was so kind Nesta’s heart hurt—the twist a reminder of what she did not deserve: that beautiful, rare kindness. “We’re always open to another fae in the ring. Aren’t we, Nes?”
***
The House had been more than enthusiastic to provide the girls with training leathers and sturdy fighting boots.
Ailie and Samra had emerged out on the plateau atop the mountain with their mother close behind them. Their movements were stiff and unsure, their tight fitting clothing foreign and more revealing than they had ever been permitted to wear. But Nesta had an inkling that wearing something most Illyrian males would disapprove of had been a motive for Ailie; another act of defiance against those who had abused her so greatly.
And Maya’s eldest undoubtedly cut a sinister figure in her new gear, with her serrated lines and her wings held high and proud behind her, completely unmarred thanks to Nesta’s healing powers. Samra was a softer sight, the girl’s luscious hair gathered and bound into a thick ponytail. The style showcased the innocence of her face: the gentle roundness that only came with youth, before the years undoubtedly wore it away into something sharper and honed.
Samra stuck to her mother as if she was a second shadow, but Ailie strode over to them with a scowl on her face: no doubt a byproduct of squinting in the winter sun and being thrust into the limelight.
As if the House understood the significance of the girls venturing outside, it extended it’s magic to the sparring rings, altering the temperature and protecting the plateau from the crisp wind that whipped through the mountain peaks.
Samra was a hesitant pupil, often drifting away as far as she could from Cassian to linger by the railings—as if the open sky provided her with the knowledge that she could easily escape. But she hadn’t left. Had watched Ailie glower with a grim sort of determination as she listened to Cassian’s instructions. Had seen how her sister—who usually couldn’t bare to leave their apartment save for at night—stood in the same vicinity as another male and did not balk.
It helped that Maya and Nesta remained close by; Nesta demonstrating with Cassian and adjusting grips whilst Cassian ensured he was at a safe distance at all times, walking the girls through the same punches and self-defensive moves he’d walked Nesta through during her first ever session.
And despite her sour expression, Ailie listened shrewdly. And after Samra had watched her sister pummelling her fists into the pads Nesta held in front of her, it was not long until Samra was doing the same with her mother.
When the session drew to an end, Ailie crossed her arms firmly across her chest and sat back on her hips with one leg extended outwards. Squinted a scowl in the morning sunlight. They had finished their session with a cool down on the mats that sat to the far edge of the sparring ring. “When’s the next session?”
“We train every morning of the week at dawn,” Cassian replied. “Come as little or as often as you want. Although bear in mind that skipping a session means you might fall behind.”
Ailie lifted her chin. The specks of gold in her eyes glinted in the glittering sunlight. “I won’t miss a session.”
Cassian dipped his head. “Good. See you tomorrow, recruit.”
Together, Maya, Nesta and Cassian watched the girls jump over the railings and launch themselves into the skies. Sala followed close behind, her leathery wings booming around the mountains as she let out three majestic flaps to raise her body into the air.
“Have you considered that your daughters might harbour Killing Power?” Cassian asked Maya. He did not turn to face the twin. Instead, he was frowning as he watched the girls disappear into the distance, until they were nothing more than three black specks.
Maya, who was also watching her daughters disappear with a conflicted expression, frowned but did not look Cassian’s way. “Females don’t possess Killing Power.”
“You're a twin,” Cassian responded simply with a shrug. “You are naturally more powerful by birth. Your daughters could have easily inherited that power. It could manifest in the sparring ring. It certainly did for Kallon.”
Thanks to Azriel’s spies, Nesta knew that Kallon had recently began to require a fourth training siphon in the sparring ring. Kallon was near twenty-five and Cassian had predicted that his power was having its last spurt before it reached maturity—no doubt due to the power of his mother’s blood.
Nesta thought of the reeling punches Ailie had delivered minutes earlier. They had by no means been perfect in form, but there had been a fierce, burning intent behind them that Nesta wouldn’t have been surprised if power had whipped around the sparring ring and knocked them all off of their feet.
That deep, boiling anger festering inside of Ailie was something Nesta identified with. Had witnessed what happened to it when it was untamed and wild.
A silence pressed down on them which stemmed from Maya, but it didn’t deter Cassian. “You greet the sparring ring like it’s an old friend,” he said, “and I saw you fight that day at the cave. You can’t have had much time to practice holed up at Marsh’s residence. What you have is raw talent, and from what I’ve seen today, your daughters could have that too, especially Ailie.”
Cassian didn’t mention the fact that Marsh’s powerful bloodline could also be a factor, but Nesta felt them in the air around them anyway. Didn’t ask if Maya herself had emitted any signs of the Killing Power over the years.
A fierce, stubborn expression wrangled its way onto Maya’s usually elegant face. For a split second, Nesta saw Ailie in her mother, stark and clear. “I’ve been told from birth by my male superiors that females aren’t worthy enough for the Killing Power. Are you honestly telling me that you don’t believe that?”
Cassian snorted, the sound a staccato. Absent-mindedly, he took the wraps Nesta was holding. His callouses scraped hers and Nesta’s nerves sparked to life, but he did not so much as glance her way.
“I think that’s what all of the lord and lordlings with sticks up their asses want to tell themselves,” he retorted. His voice had dipped into something dangerous, as if Maya had hit a nerve. “I think Illyrian males want females to do their bidding, Maya. To be subservient and do the drudgery until their bones break and their skin cracks. I think females suffer everyday because of it. So, to answer your question; the majority of Illyrian males believe females don’t possess the Killing Power but I am not one of them, and neither are my brothers.”
Nesta felt Maya’s shock like a slap to the face. The twin’s mouth parted before it closed, clearly at a loss for words. Nesta supposed the female had never truly witnessed just how different Cassian was from the rest of his race. How intensely he believed in a better world for females.
The desire to reach for Cassian’s hand was overwhelming. Nesta pushed the second wrap into his palm. He blinked, looking down as if he’d forgotten what he’d been doing.
“You think Illyrian females can possess Killing Power?” Nesta asked curiously. She hadn’t even considered that the females might possess the same magic as the males. Illyrian females were subject to such back-breaking labour and given deliberate positions of weakness, that Nesta hadn’t even contemplated that they, too, might possess the Killing Power that tailored them for the battlefield.
Cassian eyes lifted to meet hers. The depth to his hazel eyes was as mesmerising as ever—perhaps more so. The subject was clearly one of importance to him, but she had never heard him so much as skirt around the subject.
Nesta’s heart lurched and she wasn’t sure if it was because of the enormity of what he was suggesting or because of him.
A muscle feathered in Cassian’s jaw. “Some of the strongest fae in Prythian are female. Why would Illyrian females be any different?”
“Because you said that to stifle your power was to subject yourself to madness,” Nesta clipped, unable to stop the irritation creeping into her voice. She remembered Cassian lying prostrate on his back after her power had finally blazed free after so long of trying to pretend it didn’t exist. It had thrown him across an entire clearing in The Steppes. “If Illyrian females are quashing their power, I assume they would suffer the same fate.”
“The term you’re looking for is generational suppression,” a male voice interjected. Both Cassian and Maya whirled, but Nesta merely turned. She’d felt the glitter of Rhys’s magic when he’d winnowed in ten minutes earlier. Had endured that velvet darkness at her back, the power a pulsing, living energy as Cassian had tied up the session.
Rhysand was leaning against one of the pillars of the House’s veranda, which supported the exterior arches carved into the stone of the building. When he stepped out onto the sparring plateau, his hair absorbed the brilliant winter sunshine. “If females don’t believe they are worthy of magic, their magic ceases to exist.”
Nesta raised her chin in challenge. “That didn’t work for me.”
Rhys plucked an invisible speck of lint from his exquisitely tailored shirt. “Worthiness was never your problem. You were scared of what your power could do.”
Fingers nudged hers from where her arm hung at her side, but Nesta mentally batted away the warmth and support it leant her. She expected fury to barrel through her, but there was… nothing. Because there had been something in the way Rhys had spoken; a perfectly manicured casualness to his words that had something clicking inside of Nesta. He, too, had been scared of the enormity of his power and Nesta, with her stolen Cauldron cleaved power, was one of the few fae who could truly understand what that felt like.
Besides Feyre, Nesta thought that might be their first common thread. It was frayed and worn thin, but it was there all the same. Finally something independent and tangible that Nesta could hold on to—something to weigh against the judgement he bestowed upon her.
Perhaps their conversation on the balcony yesterday really had been a turning point.
So, rather than fighting her sister’s mate like was expected of her, Nesta merely wrinkled her nose. Grasped onto that thread, perceiving it as an offering rather than a criticism. “That’s a placebo effect in reverse,” she stated.
Rhysand’s violet eyes briefly flared with… approval and surprise. “Exactly,” he agreed. “But if that suppressed power was to be coaxed out—“
“It would have the potential to elevate the Illyrian army should females choose to join the ranks,” Nesta finished, her brain whirring into overdrive. She whipped her head to Cassian’s, her eyes alighted with satisfaction as she landed on a more fundamental, ground-shaking point. “It would threaten the entire asinine structure that Illyria exists upon.”
Cassian snorted a laugh. It eased the intensity from his gaze, softening and relaxing his face so he appeared younger again. Unconsciously, his fingers reached up to wind through the hair at the nape of Nesta’s neck. It was more intimate than they had ever been in public and he seemed to realise it the second she did, because they both froze in unison.
Slowly, Cassian dropped his hand. Looked to Rhys. “Asinine,” he mused, “I like that summary of my race.”
Nesta scowled. “I forgot to add that the males are bigoted and hubristic—”
“—with bat-headed views that are as small-minded as their members?” Cassian finished with a wide grin. He flexed his fingers into fists. Crossed his arms firmly over his chest, as if he needed to keep his hands locked away. “I know what you think, sweetheart, don’t worry.”
Air rustled as Nesta let out a breath of amusement.
Maya rearranged her wings. Reset her posture as if she was summoning courage, before she looked directly at her High Lord and asked, “What would happen if that power was let out all at once?”
“That amount of raw power could do a lot of damage,” Rhys responded bluntly. “The magic would have to be teased out slowly and monitored. Taught and controlled, if it can be accessed at all. The females would first need to deem themselves worthy of possessing it and that would take time. But we believe that Killing Power should theoretically exist in every Illyrian females blood, no matter how small.”
Silence descended upon the group as Nesta pondered what Cassian and Rhys had told her—
The emergence of a female’s power needed to be organic. Nesta thought of Mas standing before the pyre before it had gone up in silver flames. How she had spoken and called the females to action.
That had been a shift and dent in an Illyrian history constructed by males. A step towards self-worth.
“And you know this to be true?” Maya asked.
Cassian cleared his throat. Shook his head. “We won’t know without seeing it in action, but generational suppression dictates that magic that has been locked down for eons.” Cassian’s eyes shone with an intensity that made Nesta shiver, despite the fact that his attention was not on her. “It could mean that females might require more siphons than the average Illyrian male.”
“Think of generational suppression like sedimentary layering in rock,” Rhys explained when Nesta’s eyebrows shot up. “Each born female receives their predecessors suppressed and untouched magic upon birth. It’s a fundamental layer built into their DNA. Their own individual power lies on top of that, creating a magic that ultimately grows stronger and stronger each time a female is born.”
“And what of the males born into the family line?” Maya asked. There was a disbelieving edge to the twin’s voice, as if she couldn’t comprehend that she might harbour so much power inside of her and was looking to find fault with it. “Surely they also receive their mother’s power?”
“Undergoing research by one of the priestesses here suggests that Illyrian magic appears unique from the magic of other fae,” Rhys said, waving to the mountain they were standing upon. “The current hypothesis is that there are two distinct types of magic tied to the gender chromosomes.”
“So there are two different types of Killing Power?” Nesta pondered, fascination creeping into her voice.
Rhysand looked down at her, and for once Nesta didn’t feel like he was examining her as if she was beneath him. Instead, she felt as if she were equal. There was a brimming energy to the male that Nesta could relate to. A hunger for knowledge—to discuss and debate.
Nesta had always been sharp. Had always been able to read a room or person with barely one frost-bitten sweep of her gaze. Had feigned indifference whilst she catalogued information and observed. It was a habit that Nesta had thought she had adopted because it was her own tailored method of survival, but now Nesta wondered if that desire to understand was something that had always existed inside of her—something innate and unique to who she was.
Cassian had once told Nesta over dinner that she would make a good strategist in battle. Not could have but would. Not past tense—a closed door that came with her limited upbringing—but future. As if she had one.
“Yes,” Rhys said and his violet eyes shimmered. “Two different variants harboured by the two different genders. Two brands of Killing Power”
“And how is the magic different?” Maya pressed.
“At this point, we don’t know. It’s all speculation. But,” Cassian trailed off and Nesta twisted her head up to look up at him just in time to see him grimace.
Somehow Cassian had manoeuvred his body so it was close enough to hers that his chest ghosted against her arm. If Nesta leant back a little she’d be leaning against the hard planes of his chest. Her head would slot beneath his chin and he could bow his head. Could kiss her crown.
“Merrill isn’t often wrong,” Cassian supplied after a pregnant pause.
“Merrill?” Nesta queried.
“The priestess who is doing the research,” Cassian supplied. “Merrill has been exploring Illyrian history down in the library beneath us for years, but progress has been… slow. Illyrian culture exists mainly by the spoken word. It makes it hard to pinpoint a concrete time in history where females fought on the battlefield beyond the destruction of Vanth.”
“You haven’t asked Frawley?” Nesta countered.
Cassian grunted. “Have you met Frawley?”
“I have,” Nesta scowled. “Would she not help?”
“Frawley has confirmed that females fought on the battle against beside Illyrian males in the war against Vanth,” Rhys said. “But after that female warriors slowly died out. History largely dictates that the Killing Power granted by Enalius after the battle was only gifted to the lords.”
Nesta sniffed. Arched a derogatory eyebrow at Cassian. “It seems your warrior God is also a sexist pig.”
A sharp rush of breath sounded from Maya, but Cassian’s eyes didn’t alight with challenge. Instead, they narrowed with intensity, as if he was tunnelling deeper. “Unless history is wrong,” he countered. “Most versions of Heroicis dictate that Enalius’s parted with drops of his blood to gift the lords from each clan with Killing Power, but there are also some rare versions that speak of Oya. They say that she blessed the leading female warriors in battle with a pearl of her power.”
Nesta’s jaw turned slack, her lips parting. If it were true, that knowledge could change everything.
Excitement and anticipation lanced through her.
“And that’s why you believe there are two different genetic strands?” Nesta concluded eagerly.
Cassian dipped his head.
“And Frawley?” she pressed eagerly. “Could you not ask her for a concrete account?”
“Frawley suffered grievous wounds on the battlefield,” Rhys replied. “So she was not privy to the supposed gift of power.”
“Is that why you train the females?” Maya asked Cassian suddenly. Suspicion had crept into her voice. “To see whether the females have signs of the Killing Power?”
“No,” Cassian responded with a shake of his head.
And Nesta believed him without having to cast out her empath magic. Knew how much the fate of Cassian’s mother had sealed that desperation inside of him to protect the other females.
“I wanted to offer every female the opportunity to defend themselves and learn how to fight back. But if any magical traits were ever to present themselves whilst the females were in the sparring ring… I can’t deny that I am interested to learn more of it. As Nesta said, it could be a pivotal factor in changing the outdated practices overseen in Illyria. A female with a siphon would establish power—”
Maya loosed a bitter laugh, cutting Cassian off. It seemed the twin was so shocked that she was no longer daunted by Cassian and Rhys’s status to stop her opinion from being known. That or she was tired of being subordinate.
“No Illyrian males would let a female near their bonded siphons,” Maya stated darkly. “Just touching a weapon is seen as blasphemous in Ironcrest. Siphons are too precious to waste on females. They can’t risk having to destroy them because we have so much as touched them.”
But Nesta… she had touched Cassian’s siphons. Had used them multiple times during her training to master her power, the pulsing stone tucked safely beneath her leathers. And Cassian had insisted Nesta use it, even though there had been a high probability that she could have shattered it. She hadn’t known it was bonded to him. That any of the males were tied to their stones.
Yet… Nesta remembered how wonderful the siphon had felt. How it had made her skin sing, her power flowing into the stone as if it were running through a filter. How Cassian’s other siphons had glowed and glowed as deep as blood on his armour, as if they had felt the thrumming rhythm of her magic running through their counterpart and were answering to its call.
As if Cassian sensed Nesta’s next question, he explained, “Siphons can only be used to their full potential by the owner. They are fused to the warrior’s unique magic system after their completion of the Rite.”
“Then who do the training siphons answer to?” Nesta asked curiously, thinking of the siphons the younger males used in the training ring to master their power.
Cassian shrugged. “They are mined siphons that have not been bound my magic and blood to an Illyrian. You’ll know when a siphon is not compatible with you, because they will only flicker with light when you use them.”
Nesta cocked her head. She knew she was asking a lot of questions, but she couldn’t stifle her curiosity. Recently she was hungry to learn and understand. She wanted to live in the midst of things, rather than stand on the sidelines.
Sometimes Nesta wondered what role she’d play if they could turn back time and place her back on the battlefield against the King. Would her father have died? Would Cassian’s bones have been snapped? She batted away the thought. She needed to look forward not back.
“But then surely the training siphons won’t reveal a warrior’s full potential?”
“No,” Cassian agreed with a shrug, “but they give a good enough indication. When warriors begin learning how to channel their Killing Power, they are given more siphons then they are expected to be able to wield.”
Rhys nodded. “It dilutes the magic. Protects them from shattering. The overseeing trainer will taper them down until the magic floods the stones. You know when you’ve hit the sweet spot, because they glow and hum,” he explained.
A wolfish grin crept across Cassian’s face. “Unless you’re Az and I. We shattered a lot stones—Devlon was furious. But then little Rhysie came in and destroyed so many he was banned from using them.”
“You can’t wield siphons?” Nesta asked Rhys curiously. She’d always thought it had been personal choice, given Rhys’s heritage. A symbol to the Illyrians that he didn’t need them to direct his power—that his magic ascended them.
Rhys shrugged. “My magic isn’t compatible with them. It wants to be channelled in different ways.” He angled his head so he met her gaze head on. Both knowledge and inquisition flared and died in his eyes—stars in the violet sky of his irises. “The power you cleaved from the Cauldron is both ancient and immense, so I suspect you will be similar.”
A clawed heat rushed over Nesta’s skin, the sensation like tiny ants with needled feet scurrying down her spine. The Cauldron was not something she spoke about freely—especially not with Rhysand.
But she lifted her chin. Opened her mouth, because he was wrong—
“When the time is right, we would like to offer females the chance to see whether they might be compatible with siphons,” Cassian interjected, no doubt having sensed how Nesta had stiffened. A sensation curled around her stomach—a comforting scent of pine and musk. “Now that we have more females in the training ring, there’s a greater possibility that we might start seeing signs of power,” Cassian continued. “It could be damaging for long suppressed magic to be expelled without control. The right amount of siphons would not only protect the females but those around them.”
“If a female’s magic is locked away, what good would siphons do?” Maya asked. The suspicion in her voice had been tampered down, and now there was a piqued interest, as if the warrior in her was imagining what she might be capable of.
Rhys nodded, the gesture a perfect balance of ease and respect. “Magic is like oxygen. It travels through the bloodstream, even if it’s dormant.”
A subconscious whisper of silver and white slithered through Nesta’s veins in recognition as she processed Rhys’s words, as if her magic wanted to say to her; I’m here, I’m here, I’m here.
Nesta’s magic always channelled through her blood, coursing through her body, growing stronger and stronger before she went to expel it.
At first she’d been terrified of it, but now the sensation was soothing—a knowledge that it was a part of her and ready to protect and defend within a split second.
Yet… even when she’d ignored her magic, it had never left her. It had always been an unwelcome, ominous shadow, something in the periphery, a rare breath she only felt in her breath when she experienced a surge of emotion—at the pinnacle of an orgasm or during a bout of fury. The latter was usually when she saw her family or she’d had an argument with Cassian. When she would spy him sitting on her rooftop, the silhouette of his body and the mountain peaks of his wings an outline she could see even against the darkest of night skies.
Nesta blinked. Her magic had always been in her blood.
Blood.
“That’s why,” Nesta breathed. Heroicis appeared in her hands as she willed it and she dropped to her knees. Thankfully, the black mat cushioned the impact.
She flipped open the front cover as Cassian’s wry tone filtered into her ears. “Of course the book magics my book to you.”
“Perhaps you should treat the House with more respect,” Nesta replied shortly, but the retort was half-hearted as she began to gently turn the pages.
“Your House favours Nesta,” Cassian informed Rhys drily and Nesta heard the rustle of wings as he resettled them, tucking them against his back. She didn’t need to look up at him to know he’d folded his arms firmly over his chest. “They have bonded over books. Even when the book in question is mine.”
“You remembered the passage?” a soft, feminine voice asked, cutting through Rhys’s sarcastic response back to his brother.
A whoosh of crisp winter air laced with resin and snowdrops caressed Nesta’s skin as Maya elegantly dropped to her knees beside her.
“Yes,” Nesta replied without turning. She was still trying her best to be gentle with the wafer thin pages, but the pace was furiously slow against the torrent of her thoughts.
Finally, Nesta reached the page she had been searching for. As it had been before, the inked illustration of Enalius’s sword remained in the top hand corner, but her eyes only gave it a glimpsing pause, before they started to scan the stanzas.
When she found it, everything clicked into place. A large palm came to rest on Nesta’s shoulder and she looked up to find Cassian peering curiously down at her.
“Look here,” she told him, pointing towards the first stanza on the page. It was a little before where she and Cassian had started to read together a few weeks prior. But rather than starting from where Oya created the sword from her own sacrifice, it began with Enalius and Oya reaching the top of Ramiel to eliminate Vanth, out of magic and free of weapons.
Cassian’s hazel eyes tracked slowly across the page. The wait was agonising, but eventually he loosed a frustrated groan. Swore as realisation hit.
“Read it aloud, sweetheart,” he rasped, and even though Nesta suspected both Rhys and Maya had already stormed ahead and read it themselves, she did as he asked, reciting the entire page:
A favoured metallic kiss Of broken and blessed vans, Would have once instilled a blade with the incantation to cut down evil. But from atop the sacred mountain, The battlefield was painted with blood, And Enalius did decree that Illyria offered too much.
The day dipped its yolk beneath the sky, and with it vanished time. Wind howled its mournful tune, and Vanth cried out in triumph.
But then did Oya cast an inward eye, To the beating cage and the entangled self: Twin strands of the finest thread, Gilded bridges of souls and strength.
And from her chest she drew a blade, Bloodied steel and amplified rage. Bone of a prison, The scarlet of sacrifice, A sword to banish immoral greed.
After Nesta finished, silence descended. Even the wind outside of the House’s bubble seemed to drop, awe-struck.
Eventually, Maya asked quietly, “Vans? I’m not familiar with the word.”
“Vans is an ancient word used to denote those with wings,” Rhys explained. “That first stanza could easily be what Kallon is basing his activities at the cave on: A favoured metallic kiss, Of broken and blessed vans, Would have once instilled a blade with the incantation to cut down evil. He can’t have Oya make him another sword, so he’s interpreting the text to the best of best ability and using the blood of orphan girls to do try and bond the blade to him.”
But Nesta suspected far more than that. She stared up at Cassian to find that he had not stopped watching her.
“We already suspected Kallon was using the pit of blood to resurrect the blade,” Nesta started, “but what if he has also noticed the discrepancies between editions during his research? If he knows about the rare copies that detail Oya bestowing a pearl of her power upon the females, he might also believe that their blood is the key to bonding him with the blade.”
Tension bracketed Cassian’s mouth, turning it into a grim line. “If Oya’s blood runs in an Illyrian female’s blood, then it’s a good theory.”
“It would explain why he hasn’t tried to sacrifice a piece of himself,” Nesta countered. “If female orphans and widows sit on the bottom rung of society, wouldn’t Kallon have first experimented with male blood, which is already supposed to be infused with the power of Enalius?”
“Oh, Kallon has definitely tried to sacrifice something of his own,” Cassian replied gruffly. “He’s missing half a finger on his left hand. I had Az look into it—it’s a recent injury and from what detail Az could amass, it wasn’t received in combat or during training.”
“A poor attempt at a sacrifice,” Rhys said, his voice unyielding steel. “He didn’t even offer up a token from his fighting hand.”
“But why a pit?” Maya asked. “Is it not implied that the blood of one Illyrian will instil the blade with the power to cut down evil?”
“I imagine he’s tried that already,” Cassian remarked. His lip was still curled in disgust as he added, “And now he’s turned to the extreme in the desperation to get the sword to fully answer to him.”
“Perhaps,” Rhys mused darkly, “but perhaps not.” He tapped a finger against the word favoured and then at a word on the page opposite, where the same stanzas were written in Illyrian. “This could be the reason for the pit. Favoured is a translation from the Illyrian word for—“
“Lucky,” Maya and Cassian interjected in unison, but it was Maya’s voice that stood out the most. It was full of sharp horror and when Nesta looked to the twin, she found her face had turned deathly pale. “The cages the girls were kept in, they were numbered. Samra was thirty-two and Ailie's was the last. She was thirty-three.”
Cassian sucked in a breath.
“What?” Nesta demanded as understanding dawned on all of their expressions save hers. “What is it?”
“Thirty-three is a sacred number in Illyrian culture,” Cassian informed Nesta quietly. His fingers subconsciously wove themselves into the hair at the nape of her neck again, clearly too deep in thought to notice what he was doing. “It was on the thirty-third day of the battle that Oya and Enalius defeated Vanth.”
“That’s why Kallon has yet to return to Ironcrest,” Maya announced seriously, and the vehemence in her voice was not to be disputed, even though it trembled. “My son is intending to finish what he started before he returns to claim his birthright. He thinks dipping the blade into the blood born from a sacred number will fully bond him with the blade.”
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duskandstarlight · 3 months ago
Heilon jealousy
Notes: This is one of my faves, largely because it features a VERY territorial Cassian for the majority of the fic!
This is a snippet:
Helion’s eyes brightened as they took in Nesta next to Azriel. And when he spoke, he all but purred, “I believe we’ve met before. I’d remember your beautiful face anywhere.”
He extended a dark hand to Nesta which she examined with a cool, steely gaze. Eventually, as if against her better judgement, Nesta took it.
“Once,” Nesta confirmed. She clipped the word in the way Cassian had learnt meant that she was holding in an array of insults. Cassian’s hand clenched, and he resisted the urge to touch the small of her back - to do something to claim her as his - because the way Helion was looking at her made him want to launch himself at the High Lord and beat him into the marble floor.
Helion noticed Cassian bristle. Beside him, Azriel stepped forward so he was in his brother’s periphery. A taloned finger rapped against Cassian’s mind, like a claw tapping against a window pane: a reminder from Rhys, no doubt, that Helion was their best ally in Prythian.
Making his body relax even if his mind was tense, Cassian heard Helion say to Nesta, “Your sister said you like to read.”
“Yes.” Short, pointed and blunt. That was his Nesta. Apart from she wasn’t his, was she?
“Perhaps you would like to see our libraries whilst you are here? The Day Court is known for its vast collections of knowledge.”
“Thank you.”
Helion’s flirtatious smile grated against Cassian’s nerves until they were frayed and raw. He thought about punching his fist through a wall; envisaged the blinding pain as his knuckles cracked and bled. The distraction worked enough that he did not see red when Helion offered Nesta his arm.
“I am perfectly capable of walking by myself, thank you.”
To Cassian’s dismay, Nesta’s curt dismissal only appeared to delight Helion. The High Lord of Day fell into step beside Nesta with the step of a peacock looking to attract a mating partner. Azriel’s shadows actually grasped Cassian’s shoulder and hauled him back; he’d been moving towards them without realising it. Mor tossed him a look of alarm. Feyre came up beside him and took his elbow.
“I’m wearing inappropriate shoes,” Feyre supplied but Cassian saw it for the lie it was.
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duskandstarlight · 2 months ago
Text
Embers & Light (Chapter Thirty Seven teaser)
Notes: Because this chapter is very much in the works. I’m not sure whether this will be chapter thirty-seven or eight, but here you go...
As always, let me know if you want to be added or removed from the tag list...
The fabric fell away, exposing her breasts in the mirror. Cassian’s growl was almost feral.
Nesta dared to look at him then. He met her gaze in the glass; his brown-green eyes so dark they were practically swallowed by the black of his pupils, their depths almost screaming what he was thinking--what he was going to do to her.
“Touch me,” she hissed, but it came out strangled. Almost pleading. And for once she didn’t judge herself for it. Didn’t think twice about what she was feeling or about holding that wall up at all costs.
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duskandstarlight · a month ago
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Embers & Light (Chapter 37 teaser)
Notes: Sorry it's taking me so long to bring you guys the next E&L chapter--life is hectic atm! But here is one of my favourite moments in this chapter (and it's extra long!). The next update is most likely going to be next Sunday
I hope you guys like it! Drop me a comment, reblog or an ask if you'd like :) I always love to hear from you <3
“Ladies,” Cassian greeted breezily, pausing in the doorway to say hello to Sala who had padded over from her spot by the window.
Rising on her hind legs, the manticore climbed her front paws up Cassian’s torso until they were resting on his shoulders.
Cassian absent-mindedly ruffled Sala’s fur, his focus steadfast on the two females at the table. “It seems you have both risen early this morning. Tell me we’re about to eat breakfast and aren't partaking in a book club. I’ve not read whatever risqué romance is on the agenda.”
“Are you suggesting that Maya indulges in smut?” Nesta asked crisply.
Maya choked on a laugh.
Heat flooded Cassian’s tan cheeks and Nesta bit down hard on her lip to stop her icy facade from cracking: Cassian had a habit of speaking without thinking and this was a prime example.
“Apologies,” he told Maya with a rustle of his wings.
But Maya only shook her head. Stifled the smile that was halfway to her lips. Her hazel eyes sparkled with amusement. It made them take on a quality close to Cassian’s—the shards of amber in them glinting to gold.
Scratching the back of his neck like an admonished youngling, Cassian admitted, “That was assuming of me. It’s all Nesta reads.”
A hiss dragged itself from between Nesta’s teeth and heat swirled beneath her skin, but Nesta wasn’t sure it was from anger. Rather it was the way Cassian looked at her—that overfamiliar, beautiful gaze that made the back of her neck prickle.
A slash of a smile crept across Cassian’s face, as if he had dissected the thorny mask she was wearing and had seen what lay beneath it.
He opened his mouth to speak, but Maya cut in before silver began to mist from Nesta’s fingertips. “I was not permitted to read anything romantic at the Ironcrest residence,” she replied, taking a deliberate sip of tea.
The twin observed Cassian over the rim, her Illyrian eyes still twinkling like stars. “Perhaps I’ll have to start.”
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duskandstarlight · 3 months ago
Cassian drunk I NEED IT PLEASE
Notes: Haha I LOVED writing this. It’s still incomplete. It was originally supposed to go into E&L, but I don’t think it is now... Obviously this is not fleshed out... mainly dialogue...
Cassian drunk
Cassian was drunk. Outrageously drunk. In the way that he could barely see a foot in front of him, drunk. He groaned, closing his eyes to stop the room from spinning. Somehow, that just made him feel worse.
“Cassian.”
Nesta's voice was muffled through the spinning of the room, but his ears strained at the sound—towards her.
“Nesta?” His voice broke, his throat dry like paper. Mother Above, how much had he drank?
Cracking an eye open, it took him a moment to make sense of the blurry image that danced in front of his vision. He grasped at the fuzz of purple with a fist but met nothing but air, as if she were a mirage. Through the stink of ale he could smell her—vanilla and jasmine and Nesta.
“It’s time to go.”
He moaned as he tried to sit up. “Go?”
His sight momentarily cleared. Nesta was above him, her arms folded firmly across her chest. She looked iridescent. Utterly breathtaking. How had he not told her? How had he not -
“Yes. The bar is closing.”
“You look beautiful.” The words left him before his brain caught up with his tongue. Surprise flitted across her face and something flared inside of him. She hadn't expected him to say that. He tried to smile at her, but it came out more as a grimace. “Where is everyone?”
“Outside. They sent me in to get you.”
A smart move. When Cassian was drunk, it was hard to coax him into doing anything. If anybody was going to get him out of this damned bar, it would be Nesta Archeron and his friends knew it.
“Where were you?”
“Charming. I’ve been here for hours.”
“Before that.”
“I’ll tell you tomorrow.”
“You will?”
“Yes,” she said firmly, “if you move your ass out of this booth so we can go back to the house.”
“But I like it here,” he slurred.
Her nose wrinkled. “You stink of ale.”
“You stink of ale.”
Nesta’s sigh was one of long suffering. “Cassian, get up or I swear to the Mother that I will find a way to lose all of your best fighting knives.”
That made him attempt to stand. Nesta did not reach for him to steady him, she merely folded her arms tighter across her chest. It was probably wise anyway, he weighed three times the size of her and he could only imagine hell that would break loose if he fell on her.
She floated away from him like a regal queen. He staggered after her like a drunkard who didn't know what way was what.
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duskandstarlight · 2 months ago
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Embers and Light (Chapter 37 teaser)
Notes: Hi guys! Here’s your Wednesday teaser for E&L. No smut this week, just fluff. 
I’m afraid I won’t be making this Sunday’s deadline for posting the next chapter. Work has been crazy and I’ve been so busy planning my wedding in the evenings I haven’t had a moment to write. 
So, here’s an extra long teaser for you... Hopefully I’ll be able to update soonish :)
Also, don’t forget to send me any E&L prompts you’re keen to see. The mention of Cassian’s eyebrow scar was for @princessconsuela02 <333
Cassian had known—he always seemed to know. Nesta faintly remembered his fingers combing through her hair and the soft caress of his breath on her skin. She had curled into him, her nerves purring at the feel of his hands on her scalp, before everything had fallen away into fragments of broken dreams and ethereal voices.
When Nesta had woken, he was still facing her, his hands clutched in her hair and an impossibly large wing draped over her side. Cassian was… beautiful, Nesta couldn’t deny that. He wasn’t beautiful in the way Rhys or Azriel were. Instead, he was wild and rugged and huge, carved out of the untameable Illyrian elements. His body was adorned with scars, her favourite of which ran though one of his eyebrows.
It had taken every ounce of her will not to trace it with her fingertips and watch him wake under her touch. Nesta had never had that urge before: to gobble up an image until it was imprinted on your memory like a kiss. She had always been desperate to get males out of her bed rather than keep them in it. Once she was sated—or satisfied enough—Nesta wanted them out. Wanted to wash them from her skin until she was scrubbed clean.
But with Cassian she wanted to stay and that terrified her. Even without sex her body yearned to be beside him or wrapped in his arms and wings. It settled her mind and blood. Made everything fall quiet—a rare, blessed relief of simply existing rather than coping.
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duskandstarlight · 2 months ago
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Embers & Light (Chapter 36 teaser)
Notes: Hi tumblr friends! Here I am with your Wednesday teaser for E&L. I’m super behind on writing as my week has been beyond mad work-wise. But I’ll try my hardest to get something to you on Sunday... 
For now, here’s a snippet:
Feyre pressed Mor, “What exactly did Nesta say when you saw her?” 
Frowning prettily, Mor searched back into her memory. The action irritated Cassian. It couldn’t have been more than a few hours ago. Why was everything taking so damn long?
His friend raised one shoulder in a half-shrug. “Nesta said she was running late. That she had to pick something up, but that she’d try to hurry and would meet us at the restaurant.”
“She’ll have Sala with her,” Azriel consoled his brother quietly from further down the table. Everyone else had fallen silent without Cassian realising it. “If Nesta is in trouble, she’ll fly her out of there.”
But his brother’s words did nothing to ease his panic. Instead, icy water sluiced through Cassian so suddenly that he couldn’t think or breathe above the roaring in his head. Because Nesta wouldn’t call for Sala. He’d ordered her not to take the manticore into town with her only a few days prior. And all because he’d been a panicked bastard who hadn’t wanted to give Nesta her independence lest she fall back into her old ways.
A string of swear words left his mouth.
“She won’t call Sala,” Cassian admitted after he’d finally stopped cursing. He pressed his palms to his eyes in despair. He thought desperately of Sala. Wished the manticore would take Nesta up, up and away from it all. Knew that Nesta would already be safe if he’d have just swallowed his damn fear. “I told her not to take Sala into the city.”
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duskandstarlight · a month ago
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Embers & Light (Chapter 37 teaser no.4)
Notes: Another E&L teaser because it’s Wednesday and I’ve had a lot of requests. I’m hoping to post on Sunday and I’m currently on schedule--watch this space! FYI this has smutty content (kind of)...
“Not for you,” Nesta clipped, banishing the salacious image from her mind. Cassian’s eyes flicked up to her in surprise, the dilated pupils narrowing slightly, as if her words had shut something down. “My neck,” she surmised with a snort. “Stop thinking about it.”
But she shivered as his eyes fell to her neck again. Couldn’t help it. Couldn’t stop remembering how it had felt as his teeth grazed his teeth over her pulse. How he had sucked it into his mouth, as if he were trying to drink the very life of her until they were one beating heart—her life fluttering completely at his mercy.
“Only if you do,” Cassian vowed hoarsely. He stepped even closer… until his torso brushed against hers. A predatory focus narrowed his movements wholly towards her. He raised a hand to her neck and slowly—torturously—drew a path with a calloused thumb down the curve of her neck, from behind the shell of her ear all the way down to her collarbone. “Have you been thinking about it? About my lips on your neck?”
Breath hitched in Nesta’s throat, a fist closing around her windpipe. But she wouldn’t let him win, not now.
“Have you been thinking about my hand on your cock?” Nesta rallied back, but the words were tight rather than brusque.
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duskandstarlight · 4 months ago
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Habits - part 2 (teaser)
Notes: I usually do a teaser of E&L but given I did it last week I fancy something a bit different. So here’s a teaser for the next instalment of Habits--because sometimes all we need on a Wednesday is a bit of smut...
“Nesta,” Cassian grunted in a way that was entirely gone. “Nesta, please.”
She knew what he wanted—to come inside of her whilst she shattered around him—somehow knew him well enough by now to anticipate what he needed and when. But she didn’t want that.
“Nesta,” Cassian bit out again, but Nesta only slowly lifted her eyes at the command. Allowed them to glint wickedly.
His pupils were blown so wide that only a thin ring of gold glinted in the dim faelight. 
Cassian let out a muttered, defeated curse. “Haughty witch,” he groaned, his head falling back onto the pillow to expose the knot of his throat. It bobbed as he swallowed. “Let me taste you at least,” he pleaded, his voice tight and choked. “I can smell you from here and I’m going out of my mind.”
Nesta thought about refusing him but the throbbing between her legs was so unbearable she practically whined at his words. She wanted to scramble over him until her centre was hovering over his face, but she made herself drag her lips and tongue up the length of him. Followed the movement with a tight squeeze of her fist.
Cassian grunted again, his hips finally pressing up from the mattress as he chased the pain that laced the pleasure, a gesture that begged her to bob her head back down onto him again. Finally, as if he couldn’t control himself, Cassian’s fingers dug into her scalp, yet he released her at once when she pulled away. Allowed her to climb up his body even as his fingers flexed and trembled at the loss of her.
When Nesta turned to straddle his face, the sound that tore from Cassian’s throat was animalistic yet reverent--relief as the old Gods answered his prayers. 
“Fuck yes.” Calloused palms slid over the backs of Nesta’s thighs to cup her ass. He lifted his head off of the mattress to swipe up the dripping wetness that Nesta knew was slick on her thighs. “Mother above, three days and I’d almost forgotten what you tasted like.”
Cassian’s breath was a hot caress and Nesta’s blood thrummed through her veins at the sensation, her back arching. She knew that Cassian was lying. That he, like her, could always taste her in the back of his mouth. Nesta could never rid herself of his scent—never wanted to—only craved more, more, more, of him. 
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duskandstarlight · 4 months ago
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Embers & Light (Chapter 32)
Notes: Thanks for being so patient waiting for this latest chapter. As usual it turned out to be a hefty MF so I hope you enjoy reading it :) I think this chapter has got the most locations in it so far: Windhaven, Ironcrest, The Steppes and Velaris!
As usual, let me know what you think. And if you enjoy reading it please do hit the reblog button. Thank you, thank you, thank you <3
And during the wait for Chapter 33 (which I will post on Sunday 28th March / 4 April if all goes to plan), do feel free to drop into my anon box--I love hearing from you guys! 
Chapter Thirty-Two Cassian
Despite a day and night of rest following the initial bout of healing at the cottage, the next week tumbled by in a whirlwind of activity. If life were a play, Cassian thought, then everything had previously been in intermission and the Gods had suddenly deigned to continue the show.
After speaking with Maya, Feyre and Rhys had winnowed an exhausted Cassian and Nesta back to Windhaven before leaving immediately for Velaris. By the time Cassian  waved them goodbye, Nesta was already lying in the foetal position on her length of the couch, her head nestled into the corner. Silent silver flames danced in the hearth and Cassian only had time to groan before he collapsed onto the branch of cushions directly opposite. His wing had landed with an unceremonious thump onto the coffee table, moulding itself around a stack of books, the tip of his fingers grazing Nesta’s thigh. She did not bat him away. Her eyes were already half-closed, her breathing deep and even.
Cassian heard the gentle reassuring thump of her heart in his ears before everything had turned dark.
It was the click of the backdoor that had woken him the next day, heralding Mas and Roksana’s arrival. Cassian had blinked the sleep from his eyes only to be met with the crown of Nesta’s golden head and the scent of jasmine and vanilla entangled like something vital in his lungs. 
Only then did he remember the nightmare that had dragged him from sleep in the dead of night. His eyes had snapped open, his body bound and immovable by the heavy weight of death and the illusion of powdered ash in his mouth. His chest had heaved but he’d managed to whip his head to the side—searching for her—only to find Nesta blinking blearily at him, as if his torment had pulled her out of the clutches of sleep. She hadn’t said a word, had only climbed across the cushions until she was lying at a right-angle to him, her body stretched across the intersection of the couch.
As soon as her head had lain next to his, Cassian had found himself able to move, as if the bindings holding him prisoner had suddenly been cut free. Shuddering, he had wound his hands through her hair and pressed his face to her scalp, breathing her in—the scent of her that told him she was safe and sound. That she was not the crumbling ash that coated his tongue.
Nesta’s hand had come up to clasp at his elbow, a silent comfort that told him she was there, before they had tumbled into the comforting dark together.
He hadn’t dreamt after that.
Biting back a sleepy grin, Cassian watched with amusement as Mas halted abruptly at the left-hand archway to the living room.
“Sorry anak,” she apologised with a mortified, unnecessary flush to her brown cheeks. Her hazel eyes flitted from him to Nesta, no doubt clocking how close their heads were and how Cassian’s fingers and nose were still buried in Nesta’s hair. “I didn’t realise you were still sleeping.”
With the swiftness of a mother prone to scooping up little ones before they got themselves into trouble, Mas grabbed for Roksana as the youngling tried to enter the room, gathering the little girl tightly to her chest. Roksana had made to lurch forward and her wings were still spread wide, ready to aid her attempt to launch across the room—towards Sala who was spread out by the fire.
Slowly, the manticore lifted her head from where it was resting on her huge paws and cocked it to one side. The beast’s sandy ears pricked forward in intrigue, her beautiful almond eyes soft and curious as she soaked in the sight of the little Illyrian buzzing with energy.
“Manticore!” Roksana exclaimed with a delighted clap of her hands. She looked up at Mas with unbridled excitement and then, to Cassian’s surprise, to him.
Cassian had never seen the youngling’s face so unfettered—so childlike. In fact, Cassian had never heard her speak. He knew she spoke the odd word to Mas and Nesta, but with him present, the youngling usually remained mute.
An ache rippled over Cassian’s wings as he folded them in and sat upright. Biting back the grimace that wanted to fight its way onto his expression, he shot Roksana his best smile and told her, “The manticore’s name is Sala.”
“Sala,” Roksana repeated quietly, turning her head to peek up at Mas with wide hazel eyes. The housekeeper grinned at the gesture and dropped a loving kiss to the wind-snarled mass of the youngling’s hair.
Nesta, who had been as immovable as a rock, finally stirred, no doubt dragged from the blanket of sleep by the sound of voices and the loss of Cassian’s hand in her hair.
Those steel blue eyes immediately sought his and everything in Cassian tightened as he found them to be clear and trauma-free—as wide and open as the moments after he had kissed her. After he had made her shatter on his tongue.
“Hello,” Nesta croaked. Then, she spied Roksana and Mas, and the sleepy smile that graced her face had all of his desire dissipating. His heart softened as Nesta propped herself up onto a forearm and said, “Hello.”
“You can go to Nesta only,” Mas told Roksana sternly as the youngling scampered across the room, scrambling up onto the sofa so she could wrap her arms around Nesta’s waist.
“She wants to pet the manticore,” Mas told Nesta with a faint, amused smile as Roksana whispered the word twice more to Nesta with a point of a stubby finger towards the fireplace. “Your manticore,” the housekeeper corrected with a toothy grin, even as Mas glanced nervously at the beast who had jumped to her feet, eager to greet Cassian as he rose from the cushions.
Cassian stretched with a groan that evolved into a wide yawn. His limbs were stiff from sleeping for so long. He needed to fly—to exercise and warm up his muscles. He needed to bathe. Gods, how long had they been sleeping? Eighteen hours? More? He usually only slept that length of time after battle.
“Devlon and the other instructors trained you this morning?” Cassian checked with Mas.
The housekeeper nodded. “More balance and footwork,” she told him. “Then applying that to self-defence.”
Cassian’s nod indicated that he was satisfied. “Take the salve from the bathroom cupboard on your way out today,” he instructed. One quick sweeping assessment of the Illyrian had told Cassian that she was sore. “It looks like you could do with it.”
A muzzle was thrust into Cassian’s hand and he looked down to find Sala staring up at him beseechingly. She let out an indignant whine as if to punctuate that she didn’t appreciate being ignored and Cassian snickered, before he bent down to scratch behind the beast’s ears.
When the manticore began to purr loudly, Roksana clapped her hands in delight.
“She’s very friendly,” Nesta told Roksana with a smile. She smoothed back the girl’s wild hair and kissed Roksana’s chubby cheek. Nesta’s hair was mussed, golden strands falling from her coronet which was now loose, no doubt from where his hands had been in it all night.
Cassian wasn’t sure she could look more beautiful. An intense urge overtook him and he almost felt the tug at his ribcage as he imagined striding across the room and slanting his mouth on hers.
Gods, he needed to taste her again more than anything.
Ignoring the sharp, knowing glance Mas threw his way, Cassian created some distance. Doing his best to appear casual, he leant against the right-hand archway that led to the kitchen and took the time to wrangle back some semblance of control.
But then he had watched Nesta introduce Roksana to Sala and everything tightened in a completely different way. His throat bobbed at the look of wonder on the youngling’s face as she stroked Sala’s fur and Cassian knew the sight was something he would cherish forever.
With a fervour that surprised even him, Cassian wished Feyre was with them. Because he knew what he wanted for next Solstice—a painting of this. Of Roksana before Sala, Nesta cradling the youngling’s body from behind, her chin tucked atop the girl’s dark tangle of hair, a secret smile on her face. Just the thought of Feyre brushing the moment onto canvas had sent shivers down his spine—and in that moment Cassian had understood just how irrevocably entangled he was with the female before him. How completely and utterly besotted he was in a way he had never thought possible with anyone.
Later, Roksana had buried her face into Sala’s neck, her small hands clutching at the manticore’s ears and whispered Sala’s name. And when Nesta had laughed, the sound had only confirmed to Cassian what he already knew: that he had never been so content. That he would live with the pain of being so near to Nesta and not being able to have her if it meant he could witness her smile freely. If he could hear her laugh without trying to stifle it as if it were a fire to be put out.
Over the following week, training the females, overseeing the military units and ferrying between Windhaven and the cottage preoccupied Cassian’s every breath. Nesta was just as busy, and she spent any free time she had in the widows camp or running errands with Mas. She had even flown to the travelling market with Mas, which had set itself up for a few days in the Paya valley, selling all means of goods, from spices and fresh produce to jewellery, weapons and swaths and swaths of fabric.
When he did not winnow to the bungalow to deliver them in person, Rhys spoke frequently into Cassian’s mind to deliver updates. Azriel bled in and out of shadows scouting for Kallon and utilising his most-trusted Illyrian contacts to feedback information of the ongoings in Ironcrest’s camp—the former attempts of which had been futile. And all the while they waited with bated breath as news continued to reach them that Marsh had still not left his bed.
It was only a matter of time until Kallon had the right to the title of Prince of Ironcrest. They all knew it. The question would be whether he’d come back to claim his title. And if he did, how the princeling would wield his new found power to rally his cause and drum up the discontent even further.
Given their demands and duties, Cassian and Nesta did not often find themselves alone, something which Cassian found to be both torture and a blessing. Even during their flights to the cottage they flew separately—Cassian on his own wings and Nesta atop Sala—and Nesta had even taken to bringing Roksana with her once the majority of the girls had recovered enough to be taken to Velaris by Mor. The little Illyrian had been delighted to discover Caer whom she adored even more than Sala, most likely due to his endless patience whenever Roksana clambered onto his back. Caer would pad around the grounds outside the cottage, carting Roksana about as she tried to balance herself with outstretched wings. Whenever she toppled off—which was frequently—the manticore would nuzzle at Roksana’s stomach with a teasing growl, which never failed to elicit squeals of giggles that cracked even Frawley’s hard exterior.
Lorrian, who had taken a shine to Roksana well before her visits, had used the youngling’s attendance around the cottage as an opportunity to give her some much-needed flying lessons. Cassian had watched with amusement, leaning against the paddock railings with Nesta and Frawley by his side as Roksana zoomed around the paddock with such speed even Lorrian had stumbled to catch up with her. Cassian had even spied a few of the girls peeking curiously from around the barn doors, no doubt drawn by Frawley and Nesta’s amused outburst of laughter. In the end, even Maya and Samra had come outside to watch.
After the lesson, Frawley had awarded Roksana with a huge mug of hot chocolate, before depositing the youngling swiftly into the tub for a much-needed bath.
In the rare moments that Cassian and Nesta were alone, Cassian found things… difficult, and it was through no fault of Nesta’s. After all, it was Cassian who had given Nesta the choice of deciding what their activities between the sheets had meant. Yet, Cassian could not help the bitter disappointment that wound through him when Nesta did not seek him out again at night—neither for company or for something more heated.
The problem was that Cassian had not truly known the gravity of what he would be dealing with in the aftermath. Knowing what Nesta now tasted like—the scent of which had faded but not disappeared from his tongue—tested a new reserve of Cassian’s strength, and Cassian found himself flitting between an almost terrifying, composed calm to a fervent, primal yearning that had him shaking with the need to touch her… to consume her… to please her in every way possible that went beyond carnal lust.
Oddly, it was the small things that set him off: when she stood too close or when those smoky grey eyes searched for him over anyone else. The worst was when she allowed a small smile to grace her beautiful face or when she taunted him, each teasing jab or jest enough to tell him that she was no longer wading through the muddy waters of trauma. That she was happier—more content.
Sometimes Nesta would touch him without him prompting her to, her fingers snagging on his arm or her body brushing against his as she moved to make tea at the kitchen counter. And those light touches… they burned, as if Cassian was nothing but an animal and Nesta was on heat. His body itched and trembled and begged for her, and Cassian had taken to pleasuring himself at night and first thing in the morning, recreating the sounds of her moans in his head and the grasp of her fingers in his hair. The way she had finally said his name and the weight of her breasts cupped in his palms. The way her body had arched and moulded to his as she had begged for release.
And finally, the way she had reached for him. Those fingers as they had dipped just below the waistband of his pants…
Fantasy and memory became friend and foe. And Cassian pleasured himself in the shower. After training. In the middle of the night. And even then, Cassian was only sated for the briefest of moments until that need crashed down over him again and he had to think of any grotesque image that would cool his blood: Devlon. Marsh. Kallon.
As a consequence, Cassian found himself keeping his distance whenever it became too much. It hurt to do it, as if something was tearing inside of him, and he knew Nesta had clocked it. But she didn’t bring it up and nor did she broach what had happened between the bedsheets. She did not shut him out. Did not poison him with words or derisive looks, even when, for the most part, Cassian thought his actions called for it.
And all the while her scent lingered like the sweetest perfume. It was worse when they were together. Then, it grew stronger. It filled his nostrils, his mouth, the taste of her heady and wonderful and almost sinful in its reminder that Cassian had experienced his one chance with her: one kiss, one touch, one taste.
That was another reason why Cassian was keeping his distance. What was it Nesta had said when he’d told her that the others might scent what they had done? It’s a complete invasion of privacy. So, when the others had arrived, Cassian had created space between them whenever he could. Had watched the way Nesta’s eyes had become more hollow whenever he ensured he was stationed at the opposite side of the room. He hadn’t had the time to communicate to her that his distance was to try and respect her wish for privacy—to prevent the others knowing what they had done—and he had been forced to watch her tumble into the dark depths of her trauma without a hand to haul her out.
Until he’d had to act as a tether, anyway.
Despite his efforts, Cassian suspected that all of his friends had sensed a shift. Mor’s gift was truth, after all, and Azriel and Rhys knew him better than anyone. His brothers had always reprimanded him for wearing his heart on his sleeve to the detriment of no-one but himself, but Cassian couldn’t help it. He couldn’t help a lot of things when it came to Nesta, and he didn’t trust himself not to let that carefully formed leash slip and ruin everything he’d promised her.
He’d already failed once; If you summon your healing magic, I’ll taste you again.
Mother Above. Cassian had even had to resort to training Nesta with Lorrian at the cottage—an unacknowledged chaperone—using the excuse that Nesta needed to not only practice with the bow, but spar with other opponents so she could experience different fighting techniques. And whilst that was true, it was also because training was sacred to Cassian. It taught people to survive and endure and he would not taint the opportunity by tackling Nesta to the ground and slanting his mouth on hers.
Not to mention that she probably didn’t want him to do that, anyway.
“Struggling?” Lorrian taunted at Cassian one evening after dinner.
The two of them had stepped back out into the paddock in order to exhaust some excess energy. They had left Nesta in the cottage living room with Frawley, Maya and Samra. Roksana, who had been running around all day with the manticores, had passed out in front of the hearth, curled up between the two beasts, one of her little wings curved around Caer’s head.
Maya’s eldest daughter Ailie remained upstairs. In fact, she rarely came out of the room she shared with her mother and sister, still too traumatised to face even those inside of the cottage. When she did emerge, she’d sit in front of the armchair by the fire and stare at the flames, as if she were hoping she were one of them and she could escape up the chimney and out into the freedom of the open sky.
But Samra—the youngest of Maya’s girls—was slowly and shyly come out of her shell, although she stuck to her mother like glue, clearly terrified that she might disappear.
“Struggling with what?” Cassian drawled to his friend, as he tapped his siphons to rid himself of his armour. It disappeared scale-by-scale, revealing a short-sleeved tunic layered over a long-sleeved one. Both were fastened at the waist by a lightweight rope of leather, which Cassian tossed to the side before shucking off the short-sleeved top.
Usually Cassian favoured fighting in skin, but Illyria in the depths of winter tested even his fierce warrior blood.
Snorting, Lorrian flared his own siphons and a gleaming emerald arm appeared in a wave of light. “You’ll feel better once you have beaten the shit out of me.”
Cassian raised a scar-slashed eyebrow. “That’s defeatist of you.”
Lorrian rolled his magical arm as he adjusted to the additional weight. “You have intermittent aggression and arousal seeping from your pores. I’m surprised Nesta hasn’t detected it.”
With a dismissive wave of a hand, Cassian replied, “I’m not that bad.”
The way Lorrian grunted told Cassian that he didn’t agree, but to Cassian’s relief, the no further comment came.
Cassian did not need his friend to point out that in the past week the two of them had sparred more frequently than they usually did in months.
“I’m acclimatising,” Cassian said shortly as they began to circle one another, their fists held up to their faces.
For a few turns, there was only the sound of their feet on the wet, spongy earth beneath the soles of their boots. Cassian’s eyes did not stray from Lorrian’s face, allowing his peripheral vision to drink in his friend’s every movement.
It was true that Cassian had more weight behind him than the colonel, but like he was in the skies, Lorrian could be as quick as hell in the training ring. Cassian had learnt long ago that sparring with Lorrian wasn’t about throwing the fiercest punch, but being alert enough to recognise when the bastard was going to duck and strike a fierce upper cut to the gut.
“You’ll stay in Velaris for a few days?” Lorrian asked, after their third round of circling.
Cassian flashed his friend a grin as if to tell him he knew what he was doing. It turned out to be more of a grimace. “You know that I am. Quit trying to distract me.”
“And Nesta’s going with you?”
“You know she is.”
“My point,” Lorrian continued with a slight pant, “is that you better master your shit before you get there. I imagine tensions will be high enough without a snarling general in the mix.”
“Things have been mending. She’s doing well.”
“Incredible,” Lorrian corrected, his eyes flitting to Cassian’s solar plexus in a way that betrayed his desired move. “I’ve never met anyone more resilient. Frawley holds her in high regard and we know that doesn’t happen often.”
In the corner of Cassian’s eye, something moved at the far left-hand side of the paddock, but then Lorrian’s right elbow dropped and Cassian had the opening he had been waiting for. He lunged, his fist flying for Lorrian’s jaw and the colonel barely had time to slam his left arm up to deflect the blow.
But Cassian did not give Lorrian time to recover. He was already moving, his left fist cutting upwards to land a sharp jab to his friend’s ribs. Lorrian tried for a shot to the face but Cassian’s right arm was already deflecting and counter-jabbing before the colonel had time to so much as think about doing anything else but blocking.
Breath sawed out of them and Cassian knew that to any onlooker they were barely more than a blur of grunting flesh and lethal wings.
It was only a lightning fast parry from Lorrian as he jumped back on agile feet, that spared him from being thrown to the forest floor.
It struck up a distance between them again, and for a moment, there was nothing but the sound of wings as they flared outwards and tucked in tight.
And then they began again. Circling one another and panted for air, before one of them created an opening and then there was nothing but punches and blocks and counterattacks, of footwork and grunts and wings thrown out for balance. Cassian felt himself slip into that calm—the mantra that felt like a dance to him—until he landed a precise counter-head blow as Lorrian stepped in for a hook to the ribs.
Lorrian’s knees hit the floor with a thud and Cassian stepped back, breathing hard, giving his friend space to recover. Turning, he used his wrist to wiped the blood away from his lip, only to find Maya watching him with wide-eyes, her arms wrapped tightly around her body.
He lifted a hand in greeting and she offered him a small smile in return, before she turned on the spot and disappeared back inside the house.
“That was better going than last time,” Cassian told Lorrian. He extended his hand to help his friend up from the ground but Lorrian only waved him proudly away. “But you’re still dropping your left arm and leaving your face open. Once that falls apart so does all of the rest.”
Shaking his head in irritation, Lorrian spat blood onto the damp earth. Neither of them had been going at full pelt, but that didn’t mean they hadn’t roughed one another up a little. Cassian’s ribs were already bleating from the impact of Lorrian’s fists and he knew he was already sporting a bruise on his right cheekbone. “I spent all this time mourning the loss of a limb, but when I magic it back for hand-to-hand combat it feels wrong.” Grimacing, the colonel rolled his arm in its socket. “It’s like learning all over again and the worst damn thing is that even when I magic it away at the end of the session, my brain still creates a phantom soreness where my limb should be.”
Chuckling, Cassian clapped his friend on the back. The sparring hadn’t only been a method of burning off energy for Cassian. Now Lorrian had taken up the position of colonel, Lorrian had asked Cassian to train with him more regularly. Whilst Lorrian’s magic could bring his limb back into temporary existence, Lorrian’s muscle memory had depleted over the years. Training with Cassian provided his friend with the opportunity for his brain to reconnect with his lost limb for those times when he needed it the most. “You’re Illyrian, Lor. You can deal with some pulled muscles.”
Another grunt. “It would be easier on my body if you didn’t fight like a damn God.”
Cassian flashed his teeth. “I can’t help that I was destined to lead on the battlefields.”
“And so modest, too,” Lorrian grumbled. Then, he sobered. “Nesta seems a little better.”
Cassian had not spoken to anyone about Nesta’s trauma, but it was there so plainly for anyone to see that he did not jump to deny it. And… pride wound through him at how well she was doing. At how she hadn’t shut him out. “Yes. I hope—“ he blew out a long breath, suddenly unable to stifle the worry that took hold of his brow. “I hope Velaris doesn’t make it worse.”
“You think it will do that?”
“As you guessed, there are a lot of unresolved tensions and conflicts,” Cassian admitted. Not to mention that Nesta herself had once begged him not to send her back to Velaris. Cassian did not know why she’d had a change of heart. He knew she wanted to visit the girls and help them to settle, but she’d asked to come back with him before that. “Nesta wasn’t happy in Velaris,” he finished simply.
“Does she know it’s your birthday on Hogmanay?”
“No,” Cassian said shortly. He shot his friend a sharp look. “Don’t tell her.”
Cocking an eyebrow in confusion, Lorrian asked quizzically, “Why?”
“Because Nesta has enough to worry about. If she thinks there will be a party that she has to attend with my family where she has to pretend that she’s happy, then she will bolt.”
Lorrian frowned. “She won’t bolt from you, Cass.”
But Cassian was not so sure. Lorrian did not know the Nesta in Velaris; the sharp, angry female who had been so terrifyingly sick.
“What you have seen is not Nesta at her most traumatised,” Cassian told Lorrian in a long breath. “When she came here…” He trailed off, his throat bobbing. “Things were very bad. Velaris was toxic for her. The War was hard on her—more so than any of us.”
Kallon had highlighted some of Nesta’s habits during their trip to Ironcrest and Cassian had no desire to voice them aloud again.
This time it was Lorrian’s turn to clap him on the shoulder. “And now Nesta is stronger. She’s built herself from the ashes and become someone the females revere, Cassian. You know what the Illyrians are calling her.”
Cassian did know. Did not want to think too hard about the silver-flamed Diyosa with a fierce manticore by her side. Together they protected and defended the females of the Night Court.
“She might be the only High Fae in the history of Illyria to have the respect of our people,” Lorrian continued. “She’s already winning over the majority of the female population by doing nothing but being herself. She could single-handedly sway the rebellion if we played our cards right, Cass.”
Cassian did not say anything. Was too scared to.
“Even the males have begrudging respect, you have seen how Devlon is around her. At the very least, they recognise that she is powerful. Is she still going with you to instate the new law tomorrow?”
“Yes.”
Rhys had offered Nesta a choice: to assist Mor in settling the last of the girls into the library or to come with the rest of them to each of the Illyrian camps to announce the new clipping law.
“This is what you have been campaigning for all your life,” Lorrian said quietly. “Nesta could pave the way for something new. Something better. You both could.”
“You seem to have forgotten that I am nothing but a lowly bastard,” Cassian stated gruffly, as together they walked out of the paddock and past the barn. “And that I have done very little to stifle this rebellion.”
“You earned the title of Prince of Bastards a long time ago, amongst other names.”
“That is not a title.”
“Is that what you’re worried about?” Lorrian asked with a flicker of surprise. “That you’re not good enough for Nesta?”
Cassian stalked towards the back door, suddenly keen to find Nesta and go home. He wasn’t angry, just… uncomfortable. Lorrian had hit too close to the bone.
“Don’t do yourself a disservice by labelling yourself as something others have tried to falsely pigeon hole you into,” Lorrian told Cassian sternly as they reached the threshold. “You can’t dismantle a faulty system if deep down you believe what the oppressors have drummed into you.”
Then, with a final clap to Cassian’s shoulder, Lorrian disappeared into the cottage.
___  
As the pastel hues of dawn bled into day the next morning, Rhys and Feyre winnowed into Windhaven.
Even if it hadn’t been for the star-kissed breeze that wound its way through the mountain pass, Cassian would have known his brother and his mate had arrived. Cassian was halfway through correcting Emerie’s stance when her head whipped to the right of the sparring rings, along with every other female who had turned up for practice that morning.
Only Nesta did not turn, but like Cassian, she had been expecting them. Rhys had spoken into Cassian’s head the evening before whilst he and Nesta were eating dinner, informing him that he and his mate would arrive just after dawn the next morning. They planned to watch the females train, before Rhys would carry out his quarterly observation of Windhaven’s aerial fleet so he could witness the progress Cassian had insisted they were making in reforming the Illyrian troops.
Feyre would join Nesta and Mas on an inspection of the camp—the widows camp in particular—before they would all reconvene for a quick lunch. From there, they would travel to each of the camps main squares to announce the new clipping law, whilst Mor would winnow to the cottage with Frawley and transport the remaining females to the library.
Cassian knew that Nesta was not looking forward to going back to Ironcrest, but she did not change her mind about accompanying them to the camps. For some reason, the fact that she was willing to brave it at her own expense had only served to make Cassian fall for her even more. And although she had retired to bed early that night, she had left her bedroom door ajar just as she had promised during their time in Ironcrest. Cassian had watched her read in bed out of the corner of his eye for an hour or so before the faelight in her room winked out.
It had taken a long time for her breathing to become deep and for the blankets to stop rustling as she tossed and turned in bed. Cassian had fought the urge to crawl in beside her; to fold her into his body and tangle their legs together. To reassure himself with not only with the sound of her heartbeat but the patter of it against the centre of his palm.
Now, Nesta stood beside him with her hands on her hips, using the opportunity to catch her breath. She was dressed in her favourite leathers and her golden brown hair was weaved back tightly from her face. It revealed her flushed cheeks and pink nose, which was thanks to the frigid bite of frost that had kissed the landscape the night before.
“Back to work,” Cassian ordered the females firmly, as their attention lingered on the new arrivals. He heard the same command echo around the adjoining sparring rings from the other trainers. “I want three sets of ten lunges on each leg, followed by twenty one-two punches against your partner’s sparring pads,” Cassian continued.
He was teaching the youngest age group that morning and Nesta remained at his side to assist with the demonstrations. “Remember to make two clean punches,” he told the females. “It should sound like a beating heart—boom, boom—but your fists should move in a fluid movement like an arrow. One fist is the head, the other is the tail.”
He held up his palms so Nesta could demonstrate. Unsurprisingly, her punches were perfectly formed.
“Good,” he praised her. “Partner up with Emerie again whilst I do the rounds.”
Leaving Nesta with the shopkeeper, Cassian weaved his way around the ring, stopping when he needed to gently correcting a stance or a technique. In the corner of his eye, Cassian saw Sala give up her station beneath a copse of young pine trees. The manticore gently nudged off Roksana who had thrown her arms around the beast’s neck, and slunk over to Rhys and Feyre, her silver tail a blaze cutting through the brisk morning air.
The manticore paid no heed as Rhys stilled and his magic crackled—a male ready to protect his mate—but something angry rose in Cassian. He stifled it. Told himself he’d be nervous if a young manticore was roaming around near his mate without its fae counterpart beside it. Yet… the females around the camp had accepted Sala more readily than Cassian had anticipated. To them, Sala and Nesta were a gift from the old Gods—a level or protection against the evils in Prythian—and whilst they kept their distance they did not flinch when Sala walked by.
It helped that the manticore was good with the children. She allowed them to tug at her ears and hang around her neck, only letting out a warning growl if they pulled too hard or she’d had enough.
And the males… even they treated Sala with a level of begrudging respect and terror. Nobody could dispute the old magic that clearly stated that Sala was Nesta’s and Nesta was Sala’s. Cassian couldn’t say he was put out by it. If anything, it offered Nesta an undisputed level of protection that meant she could roam the camp and surrounding skies with more freedom. There had been so many times this week when Nesta had come back to the bungalow in time for dinner, her cheeks glowing and her eyes so wonderfully bright that Cassian couldn’t stop the delighted, relieved smile that graced his expression.
Ignoring the magic that was heavy in the air, Sala drew up at Feyre’s side. Feyre’s eyes were a little wide as the manticore nudged her muzzle into her hand in greeting, before the beast sat back on her haunches. Those golden eyes fixed back on where Nesta stood in the sparring ring, her weight braced on a back foot as Emerie pummelled her fists into her hands. But when Feyre dared to run her hand down the silken fur of Sala’s head, the manticore’s eyes briefly slatted in pleasure.
“She’s on our side, you know,” Cassian told his brother later, as they stood at the lip of the mountain pass where the sparring rings jutted out into the Illyrian sky. Feyre and Nesta had disappeared to the widows camp whilst Rhys observed the Windhaven forces. “Quit acting like Sala is going to tear Feyre limb from limb.”
Rhys’s attention slid from the males engaged in a sword fight to pin Cassian with violent stare that did nothing to quell Cassian’s irritation. “In case you have forgotten, Sala is a manticore. I believe I have some leniency to be wary of a beast who could rip out my mate’s throat with little hesitation.”
“Bullshit,” Cassian retorted, making sure he kept his voice low so as not to draw attention. “A manticore has its own moral compass and its own ability to judge who is and isn’t a threat. And,” he continued, “Nesta would never harm Feyre. She would never allow Sala to attack her.”
“Nesta’s magic is so vast you could add up the magic of six of the High Fae nobility and it would seem like a drop in the Sidra in comparison to Nesta’s. So excuse me if I take precautions given her relationship with my mate is volatile at best and the manticore answers to no-one but her.”
Barely contained fury split across Cassian’s expression and he clamped down on it, lowering his mental shields on instinct so Rhys’s dark consciousness could step inside his mind. Stop spewing shit, Cassian snapped internally, his voice thunderous now he did not have to control the level of his voice. And stop disrespecting Nesta. Her trauma runs deeper than you could ever imagine, yet here she is, defending the Illyrian people and fighting for what is right.
And Rhys… his brother actually blinked at the force behind Cassian’s words. It was not often that Cassian truly lost his temper—not like this.
Releasing a slow breath, Cassian finally loosed the words he’d needed to say aloud for a long time; If you don’t forgive Nesta, you will forever drive a wedge between the two sisters. You forget that Nesta is an empath. Why do you think she turned down every job you offered her? Your offers were never genuine.
Rhys observed Cassian with a level of scrutiny he hadn’t been subject to in a long, long while. Cassian did not squirm, only stared his brother down, unflinching. You can’t welcome Nesta to the Court of Dreams without a level of trust, brother. Let her show you what she’s capable of. Give her space and time. Nesta is strong and fierce and proud but she feels deeper than anyone I’ve ever met. She is well aware of the wrongs she’s committed. Do not think she does not suffer for them, but she is not someone to be controlled. Nesta cannot and should not be tamed by anyone but herself.
This time Rhys’s blink was laboured as if a realisation had just clicked in his brain. Cassian knew that he had not considered that he might prevent Feyre from mending a relationship that she yearned for. And to know he could be the cause of his mate’s unhappiness…
Rhys wasn’t without fault—nobody was—but this bias had gone on too long.
His brother seemed to think so, too. Ok, Rhys conceded. You’re right. I’m sorry. But know that it will always be my instinct to protect Feyre, you know that. Even if there’s nothing to protect her from I will never stop worrying.
Cassian did know. It was why he was so worried about this afternoon. About Nesta joining them whilst they announced the new law to a population of hostile, backward Illyrians.
But Cassian graced Rhys with a taunting smile that was free of his earlier anger. I understand. But you should know that if I see you mistrust Nesta or Sala again, I will drag you into the sparring ring. And we both know who will win that fight, brother.
Rhys’s velvet soft laugh echoed around Cassian’s mind and then that midnight dark retreated. Cassian carefully stacked up his mental shields until they were a ring of indestructible fire.
And all the while, Cassian did not voice what they both already knew: that it was his instinct to protect Nesta, too.
___
“What if instating the clipping law today motivates the rebellion?” Feyre asked uncertainly as they ate a quick lunch together in the bungalow.
Azriel had arrived a few minutes prior and they all sat together on the couch, plates balanced on their laps. Mas had been busy preparing food dosas that morning and even Rhys’s eyes had lit up with delight as he thanked the blushing housekeeper, piling copious amounts of potato onto his pancake.
It struck Cassian as he surveyed the people in the room before him—his loved ones— that the bungalow too small for so much company. And that was without Mor or Amren, the latter of whom had remained behind in Velaris to watch over the wards, alongside overseeing an important meeting with the merchants in stead of Rhys.
Cassian also suspected that Rhys’s second remained behind because his brother didn’t want any of the Illyrian’s to glean just how much power Amren had lost in the war—how she was no longer the nightmare the children of Prythian were told about—the ancient, terrifying other who would drink their blood if they misbehaved.
The new law would be decreed in all of the market squares of the major camps. Alaksander would travel with them and would be publicly clipped—a living example of what would happen to anyone who disobeyed the law that had been instated for centuries. Alaksander would prove that the new penalty for clipping another’s wings was not just a threat: the Night Court would follow through on their promises.
All of the Illyrian nobility had been informed of the impending law by Night Court winnowgram, each letter signed by both High Lord and High Lady. The reaction had not been a pleasant one and even though Cassian knew the amendment to the law was progress, he couldn’t help but wish it was not a bastard who had stooped so low as to mistreat girls in such an abominable way. What might have been different if Alaksander had not been brought up on the cold and brutal fringes of society, where only iron will and sheer luck meant you survived? It didn’t excuse his actions, but Cassian couldn’t shake the leaden sensation in his gut that whispered; what if, what if, what if?
“It could go either way,” Cassian confessed finally to Feyre, his expression grim.
As he spoke, cold fingers brushed against the back of his hand and Cassian looked down in surprise to find Nesta’s forefinger curl around his. He had dared to sit next to her, unable to emerge triumphant from the battle that came with his innate need to oversee what she ate—fetching her chai when she barely touched her tea, spooning more yoghurt atop her dosa to counteract the spices. Feyre, he knew, had watched the entire process with a bemused expression that bordered on amusement. Rhys’s eyes had just glimmered knowingly. Azriel remained stone-faced, but Cassian knew his brother was raising an internal eyebrow at him as those shadows whispered and whispered and whispered.
Cassian adjusted his grip until their fingers intertwined just as a soft, gentle breeze fluttered down that tether. It smelt sweet like summer. Like freshly cut hay bails and the muted perfume of flowers and grass. In his mind, Cassian caught a fleeting image of Nesta running her hands through a golden field of wheat as she walked towards a lone large oak tree, its gnarled trunk a safe haven as she sat against it and opened a book.
Want coiled inside of him and all Cassian could think about was raising Nesta’s hand to his lips and pressing his thanks to her skin. Something primal growled as he fought the urge and Cassian hoped to the Mother that Nesta’s scent had faded from him enough that his mere proximity to her didn't scream to his High Lady, I pleasured your sister until she shattered on my tongue.
For some absurd reason, the thought made Cassian want to bark a laugh. Nesta twisted her head to look up at him and Cassian wondered if she’d felt his amusement with her empath gifts or whether it had tunnelled down the bond.
He didn’t really care. He squeezed her hand.
“It will either continue to ignite any existing hatred of our Court or scare them enough that they will start to see us as a real threat,” Azriel said.
The Shadowsinger had already finished his food and was now standing at his usual spot by the fireplace. Sala sat intently before him, her eyes tracking his shadows as they wreathed about his body. It was almost as if the manticore was hoping he would send out a tendril for her to play with.
Cassian felt like telling the manticore that Azriel was all about hard work and very little play. But it was that work ethic and the Illyrian spies his brother had in place across the clan territories that had ensured that word had got out about what had happened in Ironcrest. Rhys had been adamant that condemning the Ironcrest royalty right off the bat might spark Kallon into action before they were ready. They still needed to find out where Kallon was, whether he’d managed to get the sword to work, and why he had needed the girls blood. Cassian was sure it was dark magic intended to revive the blade, but until they knew for certain… They needed answers and they needed them fast.
So, the leaked information had been selective—devoid of details about the sword and the pit of blood—but the bare bones had been enough to spark intrigue; each retelling whispered of Nesta Archeron, the witch of the Eastern Steppes and their manticores. Of clipped girls kept in cages and rebellion sentries killed for their crimes by a member of the High Fae who did not treat the Illyrians as lesser.
As Azriel had assured Nesta a few days prior when he’d visited for dinner; Stories that thrive on the grapevine have a tendency to wreak more havoc than the complete truth.
The key was to use the power of rumour to slowly unravel the success of the rebellion’s cause amongst the Illyrian people. If Kallon was relying on the females to sway any future referendum for an independent nation, the Night Court would reveal their despicable actions and hope that it would be enough to show the females of Illyria that the rebellion would only result in continued subordination and abuse.
“I am keen to side with the latter,” Rhys said lightly, as he picked a piece of invisible lint off his already immaculate shirt. “This is the first true reaction they have seen from us. It reasserts our authority above petty threats.”
“And it helps,” Azriel continued coldly, “that the rebellion sentries lost their lives. It eliminates further problems down the line.”
“Had the Blood Rite gone ahead, I did initially suggest that we should have allowed some of them to get caught up in the casualties,” Rhys mused.
“We can’t kill every Illyrian that stands against us,” Cassian snapped, his temper rising, even though he knew Rhys had never been serious about messing with the Rite. “That makes us the evil ones in the scenario. It sparks further rebellion later down the line when we squash down every fly that strays onto our path.”
“That may well be true,” Rhys reflected, “but Nesta has certainly done us a favour by ruling some of them out of the equation. Either way, going to all of the camps today is the start of something new—something better.” He turned to Nesta. “You’re ready?”
Nesta had been silent during the meal but to Cassian’s delight, she had cleared all of the food on her plate. Even so, her fingers tightened around his, her knuckles turning white as she rose up tall and lifted that regal chin. “Yes.”
To everyone’s surprise, the Shadowsinger let a faint, reassuring smile grace his mouth, as if he saw through Nesta’s indifferent mask. “It will reassert authority,” he reassured Nesta quietly, his voice as smooth as midnight.
Cassian relaxed slightly at his brother’s words. Nesta liked Azriel and he was the least likely person she would snap at. Sometimes that understanding consumed Cassian with a bitter jealousy that he couldn’t shake, that territorial part of him raging that Nesta would sooner listen to his friend over him, but now… it was needed, and it was useful.
He also knew that he wouldn’t give up their shared fire for anything.
Rhys nodded in agreement. “My Inner Court works on choice,” Rhys told Nesta. “You can help Mor relocate the girls this afternoon if you’d prefer or you can come to each of the camps with us.”
It was an olive branch and one Rhys meant, even if it scuppered his brother’s plan to reassert that Nesta was not someone to be messed with: a benevolent yet wrathful queen that would defend and protect those who needed it the most.
Nesta shook her head, but Cassian felt her inner turmoil in his stomach, the sensation deep and wounding. So he stood, helping her rise to her feet, their hands still entwined. He cocked an arrogant, lazy eyebrow and allowed a grin to spread across his face as he gave in to temptation and kissed the back of her hand, as if she were royalty and he a lowly pauper. “I think you’ll terrify them, witch,” he drawled, and Cassian didn’t have to observe anyone in the room to witness their surprise as Nesta’s lips twitched up into a small, true smile—a smile she saved for Mas and Roksana and him.
“You don’t have to do anything, Nesta,” Feyre said thickly, her hand coming to rest gingerly on Nesta’s arm as she also stood from the couch. She was no doubt thinking of the image Cassian had accidentally let slip the day before when Rhys had asked Nesta to share her memory of the cave. He had been so terrified of Nesta reliving the previous day’s trauma that the ring of fire around his mind had slipped.
It had been too late to fumble after the images that had tumbled through the exposed cracks of his mental shields; Nesta’s haunted blood-streaked face and that dead look behind her eyes as he desperately cupped a palm to her cheek in the bathroom—as he tried to get her to engage with him.
Feyre had looked as if she had been hit in the stomach—had looked physically ill—and even Rhys’ violet eyes had flicked to Cassian’s for a second, his dark eyebrows raising imperceptibly before Nesta had allowed him into her mind.
And that memory…
Even now, the thought of it made Cassian want to shatter things. They had all witnessed Nesta’s sheer panic as that male had pressed his body against hers, pinning her to the ground. Had all seen the boy’s cruel face that had pushed to the forefront of Nesta’s mind when it had happened—a face that Cassian was certain was that human piece of filth. But then Cassian’s pyrite had exploded with power, the ruby light throwing the male off of her just in time for Nesta to scramble to her feet and thrust that sword through his groin.
“You’re involved in this either way,” Rhys told Nesta from his position across the couch, puling Cassian abruptly from his thoughts. Silver flames from their position in the hearth danced in his brother’s star-flecked irises. “What you displayed was an incredible amount of power that they will fear. You need to remind them of that.”
___
When Nesta emerged from her bedroom in full leathers with a bow slung across her back, Cassian thought he might self-combust.
The leathers were a gift from Rhys and rather than being made up of the usual black, the scales were lined with a smoky silver that shimmered and danced. The effect was both sublime and unnerving; the whispering silver a promise of the danger that could be wrought from Nesta’s fingers should anyone cross her.
Clamping down hard on the arousal that smacked him in the face, Cassian quickly looked away, only to find Azriel observing him with a sly grin.
“Ditch the bow,” Rhys ordered.
Nesta bristled. “But—”
“No.” Cassian’s words were a deathly snarl that were forced between gritted teeth. Besides the lunacy of asking Nesta to go into the camps unarmed, Rhys’s tone was not the way to deal with Nesta—it was not the way to speak to his mate.
Feyre whirled on Rhys. “You can’t be serious?”
Rhys’s violet eyes did not move from Nesta’s, nor did his expression turn neutral as he spoke to Feyre mind-to-mind. “You’re powerful enough without it,” Rhys told Nesta simply when he was done explaining to his mate. “That’s the message you want to send. You have your own magic and you have a manticore at your side.”
Cassian clenched his fists as Nesta removed the new bow Lorrian had gifted her a few days prior. The bow she had taken to wearing almost everywhere.
“At least take a dagger,” Cassian ground out, striding towards Nesta and unsheathing one of the knives at his thigh in one fluid movement.
Mother above, the thought of Nesta with no weapon made him want to vomit.
But Nesta shook her head. “I’ve got one,” she told him as she buried her fingers into Sala’s ruff and took Rhys’s outstretched hand.
Her lips twitched as Cassian scoured her body in vein. He was so close to her that he could almost taste her skin, but he ignored the heady rush and crossed his arms firmly over his chest. He stared down at her and demanded, “Where?”
A taunting eyebrow lifted as Nesta replied coolly, “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
Cassian couldn’t help it. He laughed—the sound loud and booming and true.  “At least tell me you’re wearing —“ he started, needing to know she was wearing the pyrite. That if some shit went down and he couldn’t reach her, if her magic failed, then he could protect her like he had that day at the cave.
Metallic blue shimmered in Nesta’s irises—her power writhing beneath the surface. The sight of it was a relief and Cassian wondered if Nesta had known that. If she had summoned it so she could assure him that she had her own arsenal of weapons. “I haven’t taken it off.”
Fine. Good.
“Now, now children.”
Feyre’s teasing voice filtered into Cassian’s ears and then her slim fingers were wrapping around his hand.
But Cassian did not break his gaze from Nesta, watched the fire dancing amusement in her eyes until Feyre folded him into nothing.
___  
Ironcrest was just as they had left it; beautiful yet punishing, the strong wind a slap to the face as they winnowed directly into the roughly hewn market square located in the centre of the valley. To the left of them the sparring rings rose like teetering, grass-topped towers and to the right, the cliff face layered with the nobility’s residences staggered their way up into the clouds.
It had been decided that the royalty across the camps would not be granted a visit prior to the clippings. The Night Court would not bow to the Illyrians haughty sense of authority. Instead, the Illyrians would be reminded that it was they who were subject to its Court’s wrath should they not abide by law.
For the brief second it took for them to materialise into the camp, Cassian witnessed the awe alight across Feyre’s face—the painter in her no doubt drinking in the beauty around her—before her expression turning into the stony mask of a High Lady unimpressed with the brutal actions of her people.
Beside them, Nesta, Rhys and Sala appeared in a glitter of midnight. Seconds later, Azriel stepped out of the shadows with Alaksander beside him, the bastard bound in ropes of cobalt light. The Illyrian’s face was full of such stark fear and apprehension that Cassian knew he’d be begging when he learnt that his penalty was far worse than death.
Aside from the howling wind, the activity in the camp seemed to pause at their arrival, as if it was waiting with bated breath. Crowds had already formed in the square around a circular wooden platform that had been built around the middle of a stone fountain.
The fountain itself was undoubtedly one of the most beautiful structures in the camp. Water flowered downwards into multiple stone basins that grew in size until they met the wide reservoir at the base, which was obscured by the wooden scaffolding. At the very pinnacle of the fountain, two stone warriors rose towards the sky—Enalius and Oya—who sported crowns. Rather than being inlaid with jewels, the crowns were set with two angled stars that lay atop the front and were tied together by a circular ribbon that ran through their middle—pareho. 
At the base of the fountain, hidden by the platform, Cassian knew lion faces were carved into the stone—beasts ready to fight beside their chosen companions in the battle against evil.
“Here we go,” Cassian muttered under his breath to Feyre as he spotted the all too familiar figure of Lord Rufous—Ironcrest’s senior war-lord—stalking towards them across the wide circular platform.
Cassian turned to Nesta, ready to prompt her should she forget their plan, but she and Sala were already moving—Nesta an unwavering, lethal Queen as she floated towards the steps that would lead them up onto the raised planks.
Sala slunk by her side, her silver tail flicking dangerously, her sharp fangs visible and pointed beneath her muzzle, and Illyrians stepped back warily to create an unobstructed path. Some jumped out of Nesta’s way, their eyes wide and scared as they discovered that the rumour of the manticore was grounded on truth. But a few of the females dropped to their knees and bowed to the earth. A handful of them even dared to reach out and brush Nesta’s arm, as if they wanted living proof that she was not a mirage.
Cassian tried not to bristle—tried not to snarl and launch himself towards her and unsheathe his sword in the same motion. A slow, steadying breath allowed his head to clear as he reminded himself that Nesta could protect herself. That she was strong and fierce and brave and that she did not need him to step in and fight her battles for her. So Cassian watched Azriel stride after her, his hand gripping Alaksander’s arm as he led the restrained male towards the stage. Feyre and Rhys filed in behind them, their magic trailing an invisible yet somehow detectable path behind them like a royal cloak, and Cassian took up the rear, his hand casually resting on his sword as he stalked after them, his expression as hard and unyielding as granite.
When Nesta slowly ascended onto the platform, Lord Rufous faltered. And Nesta—Nesta—smiled at him, the movement cruel and twisting and terrifying. And in that moment, every single rumour that had spread through the camp like wildfire lit as a threat in her eyes.
Those dark beady eyes fell to Nesta’s fingers, where embers sparked with the promise of flame, and Rufous stilled, seemingly frozen to the spot. Even the males beside him halted, although their expressions remained cruel and calculating.
“She killed Ironcrest warriors,” Lord Rufous snarled when he finally found his voice. “That witch is not permitted on our lands.”
Cassian snarled right back, the sound a low, territorial warning in his throat as he bared his teeth at the war-lord. Rhys scraped a nail down Cassian’s mental shield but he ignored it. They both knew he couldn’t help it. “Then the Ironcrest nobility should have ensured that girls were not caged and slaughtered like animals.”
“Where is Lord Marsh,” Rhys cut in smoothly, before Cassian could royally fuck something up. “I called for his presence today.”
“He and his wife are indisposed,” Rufous sneered. “As is his son.”
“And pray tell me, where has Prince Kallon scarpered off to?” Rhys asked with a light deliberation that should have set alarm bells clanging through Rufous’s thick skull.
“He has business with the warriors in the north of our territory,” Rufous replied coldly, but the male’s onyx eyes slid warily to Sala as the beast pinned him with a glare that sung death.
“How interesting,” Rhys mused, as he picked off an imaginary piece of lint from the exquisitely tailored shirt that was lined with silver thread—starlight shimmering in a night sky. “And here I was thinking that Princeling Kallon abandoned his territory and his people after our recent findings.”
Rufous’s lip curled but he did not retaliate. Instead, his gaze slid to Alaksander who looked as if he might have fainted if it were not for the Shadowsinger holding him up. “He’s not one of ours,” Rufous sneered.
“He was on your territory with many other males who belonged to your camp,” Rhys responded calmly, but this time his voice was laced with the dark sort of promise that should have finally made Lord Rufous take stock of who exactly he was speaking with. “And he will receive a punishment that is fit for his crime.”
“Is that why we’ve all been called here then?” Rufous asked. “To witness a killing of a bastard who has no relevance to our camp? We do not control the filth that comes out of Windhaven. We can’t help it if those savages clip their females.”
“If the Illyrians in Windhaven are savages, then I do not know what to call the males in your camp,” Nesta said, her voice brimming with a fervour that burned like ice. “How many females have been mutilated here? How many girls? It is a sin what has been allowed to happen here.”
Lord Rufous was slowly turning purple with rage—no doubt at having been spoken to with such derision by a female—but he remained where he was, his darting glances between Sala and the fire burning at Nesta’s palms enough to keep him stationed in place.
“I do not believe that I need to remind you or the Illyrians here in Ironcrest that clipping has been against the law for centuries,” Rhys began coldly before Lord Rufous could open his mouth to form a retort. His voice was suddenly ringing out across the crowds, his magic amplifying the sound. “As Lady Nesta has pointed out, I have it under good authority that many of the females in this camp have been mutilated, so I would not take it upon yourself to lie to both your High Lord and Lady that this is a one off occurrence when I can see for myself that it is not the case.”
Rhys nodded to the bodies of Illyrians who had gathered around the fountain—at the females who had turned up not only to witness a public visit from their High Lord and Lady, but to see the High Fae who had protected their gender at the potential cost of her own life.
A sharp click of Rhys’s fingers summoned a rickety looking stool that appeared out of thin air. “Sit, observe and do not speak,” Rhys ordered with another snap of his fingers and a deliberate pointed finger.
For a moment, Rufous looked as if he was going to object, but then Sala prowled forward. The manticore’s ears lay flat against the back of her head and her nose wrinkled as her lip curled into a cruel smile, baring her lethally sharp incisors.
The blood that had threatened to turn the war-lord the colour of beetroot drained so quickly that Cassian thought it was a wonder that he didn’t faint. Sala slowly encourages Rufous and his warriors to step backwards until the war-lord’s legs bumped against the stool. There was a moments pause and then, when Rufous failed to sit down, Sala let out an ear-deafening roar. Spittle flew onto the war-lords leathers and the male jumped out of his skin, his backside hitting the seat with an audible thump.
The males at Rufous’s side leapt to unsheathe their weapons, only to find that they were stuck in their scabbards.
Feyre raised her chin. “We won’t be using those. If anyone so much as dares to touch their weapons you will receive the same punishment as this traitor.” She jerked her head towards Alaksander whose knees were all but knocking together.
“Well said, darling,” Rhys purred, bringing his mate’s hand to his mouth so he could press a kiss to the back of her palm.
And then together they turned back towards the crowd.
___ 
Alaksander had begged when Nesta had cut his wings. Had fallen to his knees and begged as Nesta floated over to him, her irises misting silver.
“You were part of a group of males who raped and mutilated young girls,” Nesta had told him in a voice that had bordered on ethereal. “As punishment, you will never taste the skies again.”
That fated forefinger finger had risen and at the tip, a single silver flame had burned so hot Cassian could sense the molten heat of her magic from where he had stood flanking his High Lord and Lady. And somehow Cassian knew that the hoards of Illyrians that had gathered could sense it to—the immense power of the eldest Archeron sister who had been gifted with the magic to protect and defend.
Alaksander had started to sob, the sound cracking around the market square in such a broken way that Cassian was surprised the male’s ribs did not splinter. He tried to tuck in his wings but Azriel made him turn so his back and wings faced the crowd.
The male had tried in vein to keep his wings tucked in tight, but Rhys had lifted a hand and slowly, painstakingly, Alaksander’s wings had spread as if an invisible force was pulling them open.
“We do not take pleasure in this,” Rhys informed the many faces that had gathered around them. “We have trusted Illyria to uphold the laws the Night Court have decreed in the past, but they have not been followed. Lest this new law be a lesson to you all.”
“Should any of you clip another's wings then you will pay the same price,” Feyre continued. “We have eyes and ears in every corner of this Court. Do not think because you are far removed from Velaris that we will not catch wind of barbaric acts and that we will not dare to interfere.”
And then, with a nod from her sister, Nesta’s flame had seared through the tendons on either side of the male’s elbow joints. Alaksander had screamed, his back arching as he tried to flinch away from the permanent damage that Nesta had inflicted to his treasured wings.
It was that desperate, broken scream that had sleep eluding Cassian as he lay in bed hours later. His thoughts were too loud, too insistent, and the images his mind conjured were too bright and colourful.
He was worried about Nesta. She had healed Alaksander between trips to the other camps without a word. Had slowly knitted his tendons back together only for her to cut them again as they stood before the next clan. She had not balked. Had only kept that icy, murderous expression across her face that told Cassian she was thinking of every wronged female as she took away Alaksander’s flight.
Even so, Cassian knew Nesta had found no true pleasure in it, only a grim determination that what she was doing was right. And it was something that the crowd had understood, too. Nesta was two sides of a coin: she could protect and destroy and she would indulge in the latter if it meant fighting for the former.
By the time they had arrived at the House of Wind, the exhaustion that came with the day’s events had been stark across Nesta’s face. She had barely registered the food Cassian had made her eat in the dining room as soon as they had arrived, or the way that Sala had placed her head in her companion’s lap. Feyre had summoned the wraiths up to the House, clearly worried herself for her sister’s welfare, and Cassian had watched Azriel’s spies lead Nesta away to her old room in search of a bath and a warm bed with a forlorn expression on his face that had resulted in a quirked eyebrow from Azriel.
When Cassian had checked on Nesta an hour before he retired to bed himself, he’d only spotted the slope of a satin-strapped shoulder and the golden tangle of hair spilled across a pillow beneath the piles of blankets atop the mattress. Sala had lain at Nesta’s feet, her chin between her paws, but the manticore had hopped off the bed when she’d spotted him, rubbing her face against his middle with a loud, rumbling purr.
Letting out a long groan of frustration, Cassian flipped over onto his back in defeat—his mind too busy to grant him the peace that came with sleep. It was well after midnight now, the night sky overcast and muted through the view Cassian was afforded in the gap between the curtains. Occasionally, the cloud coverage would break to reveal a dusting of stars as they glinted softly against the smoky blue of the night sky and a beautiful crescent moon.
A dull pounding began to echo around Cassian’s skull; the result of his continuous efforts to strain towards something that simply would not come. So, when he heard the quiet patter of feet coming from the corridor outside his room, Cassian initially thought it was a new addition to the throbbing in his head. Even so, instinct had him reaching for the knife beneath his pillow. But then the doorknob turned and a soft, buttery wedge of light crept across the floor, illuminating the sweeping outline of Nesta’s curves as she stepped into the room. Sala’s golden eyes glinted as she sloped in behind her companion.
Nesta’s scent hit him moments after that—sleepy jasmine and vanilla. He didn’t sit up. Cassian had learnt to treat Nesta like an easily startled animal when she chose to expose herself. Opting for slow, measured movements was key—or better, no movement at all.
“Ok, sweetheart?” he rasped through the darkness, barely daring to believe he wasn’t dreaming as she leant against the carved oak door. It clicked shut behind her and Cassian pushed the weapon back beneath his pillow.
For a moment, Nesta stood there and Cassian tried not to notice how her nipples had peaked from the cold or how painstakingly beautiful she looked with dishevelled hair and her eyes half-shuttered from sleep.
He clamped down hard on the sudden need that washed over him, imagined sinking his teeth into the meat of it until it squirmed uncomfortably—a beast trapped beneath a paw—as Nesta walked silently across the room. Sala slunk through the shadows too, hopping up onto the bed so she could curl up by Cassian’s feet. But Cassian was too preoccupied with how the mattress dipped as Nesta slid beneath the sheets. At how his heart was beating so hard he knew she must be able to hear it.
She was still too far away—too far, too far, too far away on his stupidly enormous bed—and Cassian resisted every urge that screamed at him to grab her.
Instead, he rolled onto his side. Savoured the sight of her silhouette from the intermittent moonlight that filtered between the billowing amethyst curtains.
“It’s too quiet in my room,” Nesta admitted eventually, her voice hoarse from lack of use. She stared up at the ceiling. “The silence woke me up. I miss the wind.”
Now Cassian’s heart raced for an entirely different reason. “I had Rhys loosen the shield around my room here a long time ago,” Cassian told her, knowing Nesta had already clocked the soft howl of the wind as it whipped around the neighbouring mountain peaks. “Whenever we used to stay here as younglings I could never sleep either. It took me a long while to realise that Rhys could alter the magic for me. He did the same in Azriel’s room.”
Not that Cassian often entered Azriel’s bedchamber. His brother was fiercely private like that.
“Is that why you choose to stay up here rather than in the other houses?” Nesta asked. “So you can live in the sky?”
“Partly,” Cassian admitted with a lift of a shoulder. “I never had reason to set my roots down in Velaris permanently and buy my own place. My home has always been Illyria, even if the bungalow is small.”
Nesta frowned, clearly unconvinced by Cassian’s words. Before the threat of the rebellion, Cassian had spent very little time living at the bungalow, more often than not having one of his friends winnow him to where he needed to be when he was required to oversee a military unit or kick a stubborn war-lord into line.
But she only said quietly—as if it were their secret, “I like the bungalow.” She rolled towards him and as the face of the moon was again cast free of a cloud Cassian finally saw Nesta properly.
“I didn’t think I’d like Illyria but I do,” she confessed.
“I’m glad,” Cassian replied softly. “It’s not for everyone.”
Nesta shrugged. “It’s brutal and cold but it’s…” She trailed off, searching for the right words. “Freedom, somehow. I’ve never had a home really, but being there feels right.” A blush graced her cheeks and Cassian wanted to stroke it away with his thumbs as she looked away. “I don’t know if that makes sense.”
“It makes sense,” Cassian replied hoarsely.
Silence draped over them like a blanket. But then Nesta asked, her voice smaller than usual, “Can I stay here? In your room, I mean?”
“I’ve already told you I’d rather sleep with you beside me,” he reminded her, something cracking inside of him at the glimpse of vulnerability she allowed him to see. “Stay whenever you want.”
Nesta stifled a laugh. “You won’t be saying that if you have company.”
“I won’t have company.”
Nesta turned her head to smile into the pillow. “Liar.”
“I’m beyond lies right now, Nesta.” The intensity behind his words didn’t have Nesta physically recoiling but Cassian knew her—knew that she would start to panic. So, he shot her a slow grin. “I wouldn’t be stupid enough to turn away a haughty witch now, would I?”
A huff of breath caressed his cheek. “I didn’t realise you had such common sense.”
Cassian’s laughter sparked him into action, his resolve to keep his hands to himself wavering as he reached for her. And when Nesta moved towards him and melted into his embrace, her back moulding into the hard planes of his body, he almost groaned at the comfort of it—at the knowledge that she wanted to be held by him.
Their legs tangled together and Cassian curved a wing around them, carving out a safe space for the two of them.
Emboldened, Cassian dared to bow his head to the nape of her neck and breathe her in. And even though he had spent the last week desperate to touch and taste her, Cassian found he had never been more content in his life to lie with someone and merely hear them breathe.
Minutes passed and when Cassian shifted slightly to get more comfortable Nesta’s fingers curled around his arm. It was a silent order to stay and Cassian realised they were in the exact same place they had been the other morning, when they had awoken.
They both slept, after that.
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duskandstarlight · 3 months ago
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Embers and Light (Chapter 35 teaser)
Notes: I nearly forgot about today’s teaser but I remembered just in time! I started writing this chapter on Monday before some of you started submitting E&L prompts, but a few of you will coincidentally get roughly what you have asked for... I really love this little snippet and I hope you guys do, too ❤️ It’s a bit rough, but you get the idea!
News had come that morning that Marsh had passed. Azriel had knocked on Cassian’s door in the early hours before dawn, summoning him from the woolly depths of sleep and the warmth of Nesta, who was tucked against his side with a curved wing.
The sharp rap against the door had Cassian snapping upright, his fingers already curling around the knife beneath his pillow, before his drowsy senses caught up with him and he realised that an intruder would not knock or call his name. That they would slip into his room and slit his throat before he could even blink.
And Cassian should have pulled on his pants and stumbled towards the door, but he hadn’t. He had turned to Nesta, who was wide awake, her fingers wreathed in silver, her eyes too round and glowing like metallic moonlight.
“It’s Azriel,” Cassian had told her, pressing his mouth to her fire-wreathed fingers until they flickered out, as if they had been kissed by the wind. He could hear her heartbeat in his ears, the pound of her blood, the quickening of her breath. She had been taken in the night before. Those Hybern bastards had kidnapped her. “You’re safe.”
Cassian had slipped outside to find Azriel leaning against the opposite wall, his arms crossed and a brow raised. The Shadowsinger had not commented as Sala slinked into Cassian’s room from where she had been camped out in the hallway and hopped onto the bed, where he’d left Nesta tangled in the sheets.
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duskandstarlight · 4 months ago
Text
Embers & Light (Chapter 33 teaser)
Notes: Big thanks to everybody who read and commented on chapter 32! This scene has been written for a very long time--I hope you like this teaser. The next chapter will be set in Velaris. Any questions, just drop me an anon!
Thank you also to everybody who has been sending in Nessian song recommendations today. You have all been life-savers--this snippet is for you!
Let me know if you want to be tagged for any future fic updates!
“Well, are you going to stop being a witch long enough to tell me where we’re going?”
“Are you going to stop being a belligerent bat and leave me alone if I tell you?” Nesta countered.
Cassian’s eyes gleamed at the insult and his grin... It was premeditated. It was his old armour—the smile he used to rile her. “Perhaps.” 
His tone was light but there was an underlying darkness that lurked beneath. It thrilled her as much as the thought of his body lined up against hers. As much as the prospect of that hard length pressing against her through his pants… 
Suddenly all Nesta could think about was the way her fingers would scramble to unfasten his stays. The way he would feel in her hand. 
Heat coiled through her but Nesta made sure her face remained impassive, even as Cassian’s nostrils flared and his pupils dilated. “I’m going to Amren’s.”
Satisfaction thrummed through her at his beat of silence.
“Amren’s?”
“Second in Command? Under five foot with a volatile temper? She often refers to you as a dog?”
Cassian snorted. “Speaking of volatile tempers…”
Nesta hissed under her breath but turned silent as she weaved around the other fae walking along the river. When they turned into the nice side of town and started down the deserted cobbled streets, Cassian broke the silence. “Is it wise… visiting Amren?”
“You’ll find out soon enough if you keep following me,” she replied curtly.
Cassian smiled easily--as always--seemingly unperturbed by the way she spoke to him. The apprehension in Nesta’s gut told her otherwise. “I was referring to your tendency to blaze fire from your palms when you get angry.”
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