Elain had never bought anything like this in her life. Even when she was mortal, she wouldn’t have dreamed there’d be enough eternities to work up the nerve to walk into that pretty shop across the Sidra. The one with lots of lacy little things.
But there she was among the delicate unmentionables.
The two shop ladies sensed her shy unease the moment she plucked up the courage to make the small bell on the door trill as she walked in.
“Is there something we can help you find?” the younger shop girl asked in a near whisper.
The eye of someone who seems to look away every time he catches my stare, she thought.
“I’m ... looking for something that might, um, encourage the affection of a certain male,” Elain said, immediately cursing herself for being silly enough to seek out the shop and utter those words.
“Of course, lady. Although your male is probably more taken with you than you know,” the older shop owner said with a quiet, knowing smile. “What is he like?”
Oh. Elain hadn’t expected that.
“Well … he’s incredibly kind. And brave and clever and good.” She twisted a small knot of her skirts in her hands as she thought. “He’s a male of few words but when he does speak he makes you feel like you’re the most important person in the world, at least to him.
“And he’s extremely handsome,” she quickly finished with a fierce blush. “Does that help?”
“Oh yes, very much, lady,” the younger one said with the same soft smile. “I believe we have just what you’re looking for.”
They showed Elain to the curtained-off chamber and offered her a cup of tea that settled her nerves as she began to undress. A slender arm slipped what appeared to be scraps of blush-colored lace on a hanger behind the velvet curtain.
Elain’s heart raced as she took in the delicate fabric — or lack thereof. It had a fitted bodice with boning covered in a sheer floral lace, and sweet little bows where the straps met the barely there cups. When she slipped it on, she found the soft pink perfectly matched the bloom on her cheeks.
The older fae lightly rapped on the entrance and asked if any adjustments could be made. Elain granted her access, and a smile crept on her face as the female tightened and loosened straps to make a perfectly exquisite fit.
“I’m not sure he’ll be patient enough to take it all in, but you should admire the back, as well,” the shop owner said, guiding Elain to slowly twirl around.
Elain gasped at the low-cut back with a corset of ribbons and she felt, well, quite cheeky with the lack of lace covering her derrière. Thank the Mother she hadn’t mastered winnowing yet and frequently walked up and down the hills of Velaris.
“While you are hoping to please your male, how does it make you feel?”
“Beautiful,” Elain breathed. She’d expected to look in the mirror and feel terrified. But she felt ... strong. Confident. And a word she’d never considered herself under her full-length skirts — desirable.
“Then our work here is done. The rest is up to you,” the owner said with a wink. “We’ll wrap this up while you get dressed.”
Elain warmly thanked the females as she paid and scooped up the package. They had carefully nestled her purchase (or rather, investment) in tissue paper, and placed it in their signature lavender box with a lovely bow. A present ready to have its wrapping torn off, just like she hoped to be.
That got her mind racing. About Azriel.
They had grown close in the year after the war, both finding comfort in one another as they healed. Some days were quiet mornings in the garden or wordless strolls in companionable silence along the shore. They spent unhurried afternoons laying in the grass, watching the sky turn pink with dusk. She would pull closer and put her head on his chest when the chill of evening started to set in. Other times they’d stay up late talking or he’d treat her to his wicked sense of humor and she’d fall into fits of giggles. And on occasion, she’d get a glimpse of his heartbreakingly beautiful smile when he broke into a true grin at something she said. Or when he told her stories of the antics he, Cassian and Rhys had gotten into over the centuries. But then there were times they unburdened themselves with dark secrets and whispered fears, knowing they could trust the other to bear their deepest truths.
Azriel had a way of knowing exactly what she needed, never pressuring her or making her feel like her progress was too slow. He held her hand when she slipped under the pull of her visions and guided her through those disturbing spells to see more clearly each time they occurred. It was with his gentle care that she began to blossom into her new life. She was still Elain — soft and kind, with a love for nurturing. But she was also growing into a strong female like her sisters, surer of her own abilities every day.
Yet with Azriel’s lack of pressure also came doubts. Did he not cross the line into something more because he wasn’t interested in anything other than friendship? But there were times she felt so sure there was an undeniable connection between them. Suspended moments when comfortable silences had become heavy with tension. When her breath would hitch at a private glance, or her heart would flutter when he gave a smile he saved only for her.
She couldn’t take much more of the longing she felt whenever he was near — or whenever they were apart. So while the prospect of risking their friendship was terrifying, endless lifetimes of never fully having him was too much to bear. She prayed to the gods he only needed encouragement.
Knowing Feyre had no such issues, Elain had told her about all the times her hand brushed Azriel's and the glances she’d given him through her lashes. Her younger sister gently laughed, and wrote something on a small piece of paper and slipped it into Elain’s hand. “Despite being the Spymaster, I don’t think those clues are quite enough to convince Az of your feelings, dear one.” When Elain had finally looked at the paper that night in bed, she brushed her fingertips over the address of the pretty shop across the Sidra written in elegant script. And thought of him.
Azriel. She’d sometimes whisper his name in private just to try it out on her tongue, curious what his would feel like on her skin. To wonder how it would be to say intimately, like a lover’s murmur. Azriel. To imagine what it would sound like moaned from her lips, or in ecstasy screaming—
“—AZRIEL!” she shrieked, colliding with his solid frame as she exited the shop.
She’d been so lost in her reverie it seemed that she conjured him into being but at the most inopportune time.
“Ellie! Are you okay?” he asked. “Gods, I’m so sorry — I was completely distracted.”
Elain barely heard his words as she stared in mortification at the lavender box that had slipped from her grip — and now lay at their feet for Azriel, the Mother and the entire city of Velaris to see.
He was still gripping her shoulders to catch her fall, as his eyes followed her wide-eyed gaze to the package between them.
“Oh, is this yours?” he asked as he reached down to scoop it up.
Elain could see the realization forming in his eyes as he registered the color of the box and stole a glance at the shop windows, full of pretty lacy things. In that moment of seeing color rush to the tips of his rounded ears, she wished the Cauldron would swallow her again right on the spot and never spit her back out.
As only Cassian could so elegantly express: Mother’s. Tits.
Azriel put a hand on the back of his neck and softly bit his lower lip in what Elain interpreted as embarrassment. They stared at each other, frozen on the spot.
Yes, she’d walked into that store with every intention of him eventually seeing the contents of that box (and the entirety of her underneath) on full display. But having him piece together her plan before she had steeled herself with a healthy amount of faerie wine was quite a different story.
Azriel had gone totally still, even his enormous wings tucked tight to his body not moving an inch. Elain finally snapped out of her horrified daze. “I have to go!” she practically yelled in a strangled voice, snatching the box out of his hand and turning on her heel. She didn’t offer a goodbye as she made her escape up the street and rounded the first corner, hoping there was a suitable place to curl up and die. She frantically wondered if she had enough saved for a one-way voyage to the continent to start a new life under a different name.
But curiosity got the best of her, and she peeked back around the corner. Azriel was still glued to the spot, as if stuck in place.
She regretted an easy lie hadn’t sprung to her lips — a smooth cover-up about running an errand for Feyre. It would have been a believable story given the remains of lacy scraps that made their way into the rubbish bin each month thanks to her and Rhys’s activities in the bedroom. She made a mental note to pick up new earplugs.
Elain turned to trudge up those blasted hills on her way home to the town house, and chided herself for overthinking the whole thing. Letting out a frustrated sigh, she doubted Azriel would even give their encounter a second thought.