Lucien spent the rest of the morning and half of the afternoon with Elain in her garden. She was unusually quiet, even by her standards. He had spent enough time out there with her that she didn’t even have to ask for the gardening tools anymore. When she needed a trowel, Lucien was handing it to her or refilling her watering can just before she reached for it. Lucien had never given two shits about flowers or gardening, despite having spent almost two centuries in a court that was eternal springtime. But Elain’s love for it made him look at it in a whole new light. Maybe it was just because of how much joy it brought her.
Except for today, it didn’t seem to be bringing her joy. Today, she seemed to be acting on autopilot, going through the motions without feeling anything.
Elain had been so preoccupied that she hadn’t put on her gloves before starting her work for the day and now, with the sun already low in the sky, her hands were covered in dirt. She stood up and wiped them on the apron she wore over her dress.
For the first time since his return to Velaris, he was at a loss for what to say to her. She sat on the bench beside him and rested her head against his shoulder. He snaked an arm across her lower back and held her waist gently. She didn’t say anything until the sun was dipping behind some of the taller buildings in the city. The late autumn days were shortening as winter arrived, the sun setting earlier every day.
“I’m hungry,” she announced, her stomach growling for emphasis.
“I’m a poor excuse for a chef,” Lucien admitted. “We can go into town if you like?”
She considered his suggestion and sighed. “I don’t want to be around people right now.”
He could understand that at least. Though he and Feyre were only supposed to be gone a few days, it felt the same as when he’d been about to embark to find Vassa on the continent for the first time, unaware of how long he’d be gone.
Elain was trying to wipe some of the dirt off her hands onto her apron, but it wasn’t going to come off without soap and water. It was caked under her fingernails. Lucien smiled inwardly, thinking that she’d have been aghast to have been seen in such a state two months ago.
“How about you go upstairs and have Nuala draw you a bath?” He suggested, taking one of her dirt-covered hands in his and tracing abstract patterns across the back of her hand. “One with all the bubbles and flowery-scented soaps you females seem to favor. Take your time, relax. I’ll go to that cafe on the Sidra and get dinner and bring it back?”
“That... actually sounds fantastic,” she grinned. “If the Summer Court delicacy is still in season, I want the crab—”
“Wrapped in seaweed and rice topped with salmon,” Lucien finished for her. “I know.”
Elain nodded and stood, untying the apron and draping it over the bench. It wouldn’t do to track all of that dirt inside. She slipped off her gardening clogs and wandered inside and up the stairs.
Lucien arrived back to the townhouse, trays laden with takeout tucked under his arm. He’d expected Elain to be downstairs waiting for him, but the house was empty and silent. He had a sneaking suspicion that Feyre was keeping everyone out deliberately for his benefit and he silently thanked her for it.
Where are you? He called out through the bond. The bond she had still not accepted, but he was content with her at least no longer being afraid of it.
He carried the food trays upstairs and subconsciously let her scent of apples and honey lead him into his own room. She was wearing a long shift dress, little more than a nightgown, and a deep violet dressing gown tied loosely around her waist. She was curled up in the armchair she’d spent so many nights falling asleep in. A book was in her lap but her chin rested in her hand, her elbow upon the armrest, and she was gazing idly out the window.
“You’re lucky everyone in this town adores you,” Lucien teased as he set the bag of food on the low-lying table in front of her chair.
“What?” Elain questioned curiously.
“When I told them what I wanted, they initially said they weren’t serving that anymore until spring,” he explained as he withdrew the containers from a paper bag. “But by some stroke of luck, Deidre was eating dinner there and told me to tell you hello. And when they heard her mention your name, they suddenly had some salmon left in the kitchens.”
He handed her one of the trays of food. “So enjoy,” he said. “It was made especially for you.”
“Bless Deidre,” Elain said as she picked up one of the round pieces of the Summer Court delicacy and popped it into her mouth.
Lucien sat on the corner of his mattress and unwrapped his own food. Elain eyed it curiously.
“Which one did you get?”
“The salmon and escolar,” he replied. “And yes, you can have some.”
As she leaned forward to take a piece off of his tray with a grin, Lucien’s throat constricted unexpectedly. Barely two months ago, he’d been so wracked with nerves he could barely speak to her. He had been so worried she would never want anything to do with him, would always be afraid of that bond that connected him to her. And now, he had a brief glimpse of what a real future with her could be like... and he wanted it more than anything he’d ever wanted before in his entire life.
As they ate, they talked about things of little consequence. Inevitably, the topic arose of Lucien leaving in the morning.
"I suppose I ought to pack," he said without getting up.
"Feyre says it's colder on the continent than it is here," Elain remarked.
"It is," he agreed, standing up reluctantly. "Couldn't guess as to why, though."
He moved around the room, retrieving things from drawers, tucking them into the rucksack he had to dig out from the very back of the wardrobe. He could feel Elain’s wide, expressive doe-brown eyes watching him. Once he had everything packed, he set the rucksack at the foot of his bed.
He took off his jacket and then hesitated. Ever since Elain had been spending her evenings in his room with him, he’d no longer stripped down completely as he used to some nights before going to bed. He’d wait until after he carried her back to her room.
He settled into his bed, pillows propped up behind him. Elain was fidgeting with the strip of leather tied around her wrist. Her eyes were on her lap but weren’t really focused on anything.
Lucien tried to think of something reassuring to say to her. She looked so terribly sad.
“I wish you could see some of the flowers that grow on the continent,” he said. “I’ll try and bring you back some seeds if I can.”
She only nodded, eyes still downcast and full of dread.
She took a shuddering breath and her bottom lip quivered. When she looked up, her eyes welled with tears.
It physically hurt Lucien to see her this upset. His chest tightened and it became hard to swallow.
“Come here.” It was a request, not a command.
Elain rose from the armchair that she had spent so many hours in and moved to sit beside him on the edge of the bed. Lucien slid over to make room for her, his arms held out—a silent invitation. She folded herself into the crook of his shoulder and his arms wrapped around her tiny, petite frame.
“I don’t want you to go,” she sniffled. “I didn’t then and I don’t now.”
“Don’t say things like that,” he warned, his heart breaking.
“Because I’ll never leave your sight again,” he said, holding her tightly and giving her a little smirk.
“I don’t want you to go,” she said again, a weak, watery smile playing on her mouth. “I almost told you before, when you went to find that queen. Maybe if I had, everything would have been different.”
Tightness clenched his heart. He had to go then. The freedom of Prythian had depended on it. And he had to go now. He’d promised he would help, that he’d come back if they made any headway on breaking Vassa’s curse. But didn’t the promises he made to his mate overrule any and all others? They did, but if he ignored their cries for help and didn't go, he would never be able to live with the guilt. If he stayed, it would be for his own selfish desires.
“We won’t be gone long,” he promised.
“And then what? Will she come back here once her curse is broken?”
Lucien truly hadn’t thought that far in advance. He didn’t imagine Vassa would care to live in Velaris. She was still a queen, after all, and a mortal. She and Jurian made formidable allies - they could do great things for the mortals on the continent.
“I don’t know,” he answered honestly.
Elain nestled herself deeper into the hollow recess of his shoulder, her arms around his waist. What he would have given months ago for this. He wished he could go back to those hopeless months of praying for just a smile from her and tell himself that it would get better. That he would have his mate wrapped in his arms, begging him not to leave her side, and it was better than any dream.
She traced her fingers idly across his chest, following the whorls of gold stitching on his tunic. It was amazing how something could be so relaxing and yet have him completely on edge at the same time. He hoped she couldn’t feel the rapid beating of his heart as her fingers moved across his chest.
Despite how comfortable and familiar they’d become with one another, Lucien had still done everything he could to remain within the boundaries of physical contact that she’d established. There was the occasional peck on his cheek or him pressing a light kiss to her forehead, but little more than that. Not since the night of the autumn equinox. The night of his birthday. The memory of that kiss burned in his core, igniting that fire within his soul. That fire he kept at bay, usually no more than a burning cinder.
As she continued tracing in lazy circles, Elain looked up at him. Gazing down into her eyes, he felt like he was drowning and coming up for air all at once. Her fingers grazed lower, over his stomach, and his breathing hitched. Her eyes never left his.
One of his hands left her waist, lightly raking up her side and up to her neck. His thumb rested on her cheek as his finger cupped behind her ear. Slowly. So slowly, giving her every opportunity to stop him if she wanted to. She didn't stop him—she just kept dragging her fingernail along the stitched lines of his tunic. He pulled her toward him and brought his mouth down onto hers. Her other hand drifted up his back and into his hair as she parted her lips for him.
Oh, gods, he loved this female. Did she know? Did she know that he was reduced to rubble when she wove her fingers through his hair and softly tugged? That he would face any monster in the world if she asked him to? That he would destroy the very world itself for her? She could ask for the moon and he would find a way to tie a lasso around it.
"If I offer you the moon on a string, would you give me a kiss too?" Those were the words he'd taunted Feyre with when Tamlin had been trying to woo her. They had been full of sarcasm and spite, but now... now he would gladly lasso the moon and tie it to the balcony railing for Elain.
Elain shifted so that she was bearing her weight on her knees, both of her hands now buried in his hair. When she drew his bottom lip between her teeth, Lucien groaned with arousal and desire. Once again, she surprised him with how... forward she was.
Maybe it was wrong to make assumptions, but he’d always seen her as a delicate little fawn, sweet and innocent and timid. But this side of her... he would have never expected it and had anyone told him to, he’d have said they must be thinking of the wrong female.
But here she was, assertive and confident and... dominant? She never ceased to surprise him.
Elain had slid into his lap without taking her mouth off of his. Lucien tried to make himself think of anything else besides the fact that she was straddling him. Gods, he wanted this. But as much as he wanted it, he was terrified of it. Terrified that she would later regret it— and he couldn’t bear that. It would destroy him. His mind told him to stop, to slow down. But her hands were in his hair again and he stopped thinking altogether.