Elain was back in the forest, leaves crunching beneath her feet as she followed... whatever it was. A low-lying branch full of unfallen leaves hung in her way. She tried to push it aside, but it kept brushing against her face and tickling her nose.
She opened her eyes and realized that it wasn’t a branch of leaves at all. It was Lucien’s hair. Before she could scramble out of the bed, Lucien rolled over in his sleep. She was much closer to him than she normally was when she awoke in his bed. So close that when he rolled, his arm crossed over hers.
She hissed softly, wondering how she was going to sneak out without waking him. To her horror, Lucien opened his eyes at the sound.
His eyes went wide, the russet eye gleaming in the moonlight that spilled in from the window and the mechanical golden eye seemed to be focusing on everything and nothing all at once.
He jerked back and sat up quickly but squeezed his eyes shut from the sudden movement. He had drunk a lot, Elain reminded herself.
His chest rose and fell with the rapid breaths he was taking. Elain tried to focus on that and not the fact that he was shirtless. And though she willed them not to, her eyes darted down, just for a split second but long enough to see that he’d evidently excused himself of his trousers as well before climbing into bed. The sheet hung dangerously low around his hips. Heat rose up her neck and cheeks. She hoped it was too dark for him to notice.
“Wh—What are you... Why are... Are you alright?” Lucien spluttered.
“I’m fine,” Elain breathed, her own heart slamming against her chest. Blood rushed to her head, filling her ears, causing her to nearly miss his next words.
“Fuck, I didn’t think I had that much to drink... Are you real?” Lucien reached out a tentative hand as if to test to see if she was a hallucination. He didn’t touch her, but he still breathed out in disbelief as if he had.
“You’re really here, aren’t you?”
Elain let out a tremendous sigh and nodded. He stared at her and then glanced down, as if he were trying to remember something.
“I wasn’t dreaming the other night up at the House, was I?” Lucien was pale and looked slightly nauseous.
She hoped he could hold his liquor well enough not to throw up on her. She closed her eyes, unwilling to see his expression when she whispered, “No.”
He sucked in a sharp breath and muttered, “Cauldron boil me.”
Elain opened her eyes and without thinking said the first thing that came into her head.
“I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s not pleasant.”
Lucien blinked at her and then seemed to realize what she’d said. “Oh my gods, I’m sorry.”
She waved her hand with dismissal, swallowing thickly. “Before you ask,” she said, her voice tiny and soft, “I have no idea.”
His eyebrows rose. “Has it just been tonight and the night at the House?”
“No,” she admitted, which made his eyebrows rise even farther. She wondered how high they could go, if they'd just disappear into his hairline.
“Every night since you came back.”
“I have no idea,” she repeated. “I’d wake up and just... be in here. And every night, I go back to my room and go back to sleep. I can’t explain it.”
His mouth opened, but nothing came out. He closed it and tried again. Elain giggled softly. She knew it wasn’t the right time to laugh, but he looked like a marionette.
Without warning, Elain’s vision grew cloudy and her head swam. The temperature felt like it had dropped nearly twenty degrees and she shivered. Images flashed through her mind - a thousand nights, all running together, of her beside Lucien in a bed not unlike this one. It was over as quickly as it had started and she clutched her head, willing herself not to vomit. She felt like she’d been slung around in circles as fast as possible without ever having left the bed.
“Are you alright?” Lucien’s voice was laced with worry. She could only imagine how she looked.
“I don’t know,” she answered honestly.
“Do you need some water?”
“Water would be good,” she said automatically. Her mouth had gone as dry as a desert. Lucien moved to slide out from under the sheet, only pausing when Elain’s eyes went saucer-wide.
“I’ll get it,” she said in a rush.
She slowly put her feet to the floor and stood up, swaying slightly. There was a pewter pitcher and a couple of glasses on the desk by the window, so she helped herself. Once she’d gulped down half the glass, she refilled it and glanced back at him.
She didn’t want to go back to her room, which mildly surprised her. But she didn’t want to get back into the bed and give him the wrong impression. So she settled for sitting in the armchair by the corner.
Lucien seemed just as surprised when she didn’t go back to her own room. He watched her carefully, as if trying to make sure she wasn’t on the verge of fainting.
“I’m fine now,” she assured him. He still looked doubtful.
“So you don’t remember anything before you just wake up in here, every night?”
She wasn’t ready to tell him about the dreams. She was certain it was no coincidence that she dreamed of an autumn forest and woke up in the son of Autumn’s room each night.
“Well... technically, I do remember a dream,” Elain admitted as she glanced toward the clock. “And technically, it’s morning. So do I tell it, or don’t I?”
Lucien suddenly looked uncomfortable. “Don’t remind me.”
Elain laughed softly. “You know I’m just teasing you.”
“I know.” His voice was stiff, halted.
“Why are you looking at me like you expect me to jump up and run out of the room at any minute?”
“Because that’s exactly what I expect,” he admitted.
“I can go if you want me to,” she faltered.
“No,” Lucien said quickly. “I mean, I don’t expect you to sleep in here or anything but I just... enjoy your company.”
Elain’s expression softened and she settled more comfortably in her chair. “So, tell me something.”
“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “Anything.” She bit her lower lip as she considered. “When’s your birthday?”
“Really digging deep with those soul-searching questions, are you?”
Elain spit her tongue out at him, causing him to chuckle. “The Autumn equinox,” he answered.
Lucien had piled up the pillows behind him and was half-reclined against them, the sheet and blanket tucked tightly around his waist. Elain knew he noticed every single time her eyes lingered on his bare chest for just a beat too long.
“Why does that surprise you?” He wondered.
“It’s just interesting,” she remarked. “Mine is the Spring equinox.”
Lucien’s eyebrows rose in mild surprise. “Isn’t Feyre’s on the Winter Solstice?”
“Yes,” Elain nodded. “Our mother always thought it was... prophetic of something monumental. All three of us were born at the change of a season. Feyre on Winter Solstice, me on the Summer Solstice, and Nesta on the Spring equinox.”
“That does seem... highly unlikely,” Lucien commented.
“Father always told Mother she was just reading too much into things,” she said, “but she insisted that it meant something.”
“Do you wonder how she’d feel about you all becoming Fae?”
Elain pursed her lips as she considered. “I honestly think she wouldn’t have been that upset about it. Our mother was always a dreamer, telling us stories and singing us songs that, well, didn’t originate on our side of the wall.”
She was quiet as she thought of the song she’d sung in the garden, the one her mother used to sing to her. The song that Lucien’s mother used to sing. Elain wondered what she was like - the Lady of the Autumn Court. Autumn. She counted the days in her head.
“Wait, the Autumn equinox is just a few days from now,” she said in an excited whisper.
Lucien waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. “It’s not a big deal.”
“Of course it is!”
“When you’re immortal, birthdays sort of lose their charm after the first hundred years or so.”
A hundred years. It sounded like forever to Elain but in reality, a Fae who was a hundred years old was still young. It was still inconceivable that she would live that long and longer. She could barely picture what she’d be doing or where her life would be ten years from now, much less a hundred.
“I’m sure it’s hard to imagine,” Lucien guessed. “But given time, it’ll feel a lot more effortless.”
She offered him a warm smile and said, “it’s your turn.”
“Soul-searching questions,” she clarified.
“Ah. Hmm... What’s your favorite color?”
Elain feigned offense, throwing a hand to her chest and leaning back as she said, “Why sir, you impune upon my honor with such a brazen question.”
Lucien smiled at her with amusement and adoration. She blushed and quickly looked away from him as she said, “I don’t have so much of a favorite color as a favorite blending of colors.”
Seeing his confusion, she went on to explain. “I love the colors of the sky as the sun rises."
"And here I was, thinking it would be green," Lucien said.
"I do love green," she admitted. "But I just love the orange and pink mixed together as it changes the sky gradually from dark to light.”
“And I thought Feyre was the artist out of the three of you,” Lucien remarked.
“Oh, I could never paint it,” Elain said.
They talked for over an hour, passing questions back and forth and learning little insignificant details about one another. Elain learned that Lucien’s favorite food was a delicacy from the Summer Court and that he hated peas. He’d told her that he learned to winnow at a very early age in order to escape the torment of his brothers. He promised to try to teach her how. He told her that as Tamlin’s emissary, Lucien had learned three different languages and could speak them all fluently.
“So what else do you want to know?” He asked with a yawn.
“Would you go back if you could? To Autumn?”
Lucien didn’t answer right away. His eye seemed to focus on nothing as he slowly said, “I don’t think so. I’d like to see my mother again, but even if my father and my brothers didn’t detest the mere sight of me, I’ve been gone so long it doesn’t feel like my home anymore.”
“I think I know what you mean,” she agreed. “Even if our father’s estate hadn’t been destroyed, I don’t think I’d want to go back.”
She absentmindedly thumbed the ring, a gesture she’d done so many times it had become second nature. But then she remembered what Lucien had thought that day they’d had lunch on the river and jerked her hand down to her side and out of sight.
I’d rather take the lashings from Amarantha’s whip again than see that wretched thing upon her hand.
Only now, that thought seemed a thousand times more horrific than it had when she’d first heard it. Now that she’d seen that memory and known the pure torture he’d endured, it made her hate the ring even more. She could barely imagine enduring that once. The idea of going through it all again, willingly... She wished he’d say something.
She looked up and her request for him to ask her something else died on her lips when she saw his head slumped over and his eyes closed. She reminded herself that he had spent the evening drinking with Rhys and the others, and because of her, he’d only had a couple hours of sleep.
The weight of the ring, both on her finger and her mind, still troubled her, but she couldn’t bring herself to wake him just to ease her mind. She rose from the chair and moved the pitcher of water and a clean class to the small table next to his bed.
She was so close to him. His scent was overpowering but in the best possible sense. She breathed it in deeply, savoring it and, for the first time, craving it. Sunshine, oranges, and sandalwood. He was still half-way reclined, the pillows wedged behind his back. If he slept like that for the rest of the night, he’d have a horrible ache in his neck come morning.
She retrieved a small decorative pillow from the armchair and gently slid it behind his head. It wasn’t perfect, but she hoped it would be enough. She’d woken up one too many times with a sore neck from sleeping at a bad angle and knew how uncomfortable it could be.
Somehow, in a way she couldn’t quite explain, he looked different when he was asleep. The burdens of his family, his home court, the horrors he’d survived Under the Mountain... all of the things that weighed on him seemed to vanish. She thought how cruelly unfair it was that the only time he got to escape those burdens was when he’d have no memory of it.
For the first time, she let herself wonder what it truly would be like to love this male. What it would mean to be his mate. He was genuine and kind. He said what he meant and didn’t back down or cower from someone who challenged him. He’d made mistakes, but he’d begun to atone for them and admitted them. He was loyal to a fault... so much that he was still wracked with guilt for feeling as if he’d betrayed Tamlin. Personally, Elain felt that he ought not to waste feelings of any kind on that monster, but she could understand how spending that long at someone’s side would be a hard habit to break.
And Cauldron knows, he adored her. Above all else, that she was certain of. He’d made no excuses or kept any secrets about how he felt about her. It was an intense, heady feeling to be the object of such unbridled affection.
Elain thought about the vision she’d had when she’d first woken up in his bed tonight. She wondered if it was a prophetic vision or just one of the many possible outcomes her future held. As she brushed the hair off of his face and kissed his scarred cheek, she didn’t stop herself from imagining what waking up beside him, morning after morning, would feel like. And as she slipped out of the room, closing the door quietly behind her, she was thinking that waking up beside him might not be a bad way to spend eternity.