The journey back to Velaris had been quick, just as Azriel promised. When they reached the townhouse, Azriel was barely winded whereas Lucien would have been too exhausted to stand.
He was looking for her even before Azriel opened the front door. Her scent was everywhere. A lingering trace of it had clung to him when they had left for the continent but each passing day it had grown fainter. It had all but faded completely by the time he was huddled in that cave Azriel found him in. But now it was surrounding him, making it hard to focus on anything else. He automatically peered through the patio door, but her little garden was empty.
Several pairs of footsteps came thundering down the stairs and a moment later, Feyre, Rhysand, and Nesta appeared in the foyer.
Feyre didn’t hesitate—she strode across the hall and embraced him tightly. When she pulled back, she noticed the large bundle tied carefully to his pack. “You got them,” she breathed.
Lucien only nodded as he slid his rucksack off his shoulder and carefully untied the delicate bundle. He left them wrapped in the sheet, feeling like unwrapping them would be somehow disrespectful, and extended them to Rhys. “It’s long past time these were returned to you.”
Nesta, for once, remained silent as a tomb. She stood back and watched the exchange with her arms crossed and her jaw clenched.
Rhysand approached Lucien slowly. He accepted the bundle from Lucien, holding it as gingerly as one might hold a newborn. Feyre’s eyes glistened with tears as she watched her mate. Rhys closed his eyes for a long beat, his face etched with pain and mourning. When he opened his eyes, he laid the bundle on the dining room table and extended his hand to Lucien.
Lucien grasped Rhys’s forearm and Rhys pulled him into a bone-crushing hug. Lucien couldn’t help but be grateful that Azriel insisted he heal himself, otherwise a few more of his ribs might have broken.
“You have no idea what this means to me,” Rhysand croaked, his voice raspy and thick.
“Why didn’t you come straight back?” Feyre interrogated him once Rhys had released him.
“Because Tamlin beat the shit out of him,” Azriel finished viciously, angry shadows curling over his shoulders.
“What?!” Feyre’s mouth fell open.
“I found him bruised and beat to hell in that cave—the one that’s the transfer point to Autumn,” Azriel said.
“What happened?” Feyre hissed.
Lucien shrugged in Azriel’s direction, “He pretty much covered it.”
“By the Cauldron, Lucien,” Feyre snapped, “I'm glad I asked Az to just go check and make sure you were alright. What would you have done if I hadn’t?"
“I’d have made it back... eventually.”
Feyre just shook her head incredulously. “You’re fully healed now?”
Lucien nodded. “Azriel insisted he could get us both back, so I used my power to heal myself.”
“Good,” Feyre growled. And punched his stomach. Hard.
Lucien doubled over, more out of surprise than from pain. “What the hell was that for?!”
“For being a stubborn ass male and almost getting yourself killed!”
Lucien rubbed his abdomen as he scowled at Feyre, but the corner of his mouth was turned up in a smile. “What a homecoming. No ‘Welcome back Lucien!’ or ‘We’re glad to see you, Lucien!’ Nope, just proceed right to the ass-kicking.”
“Welcome home, asshole,” Rhys chuckled, all traces of sorrow vanished from his eyes, as if they'd never even been there. He was exceptionally good at hiding any unpleasant emotions when he needed to.
“We are glad to see you,” Feyre added. “You just scared us.”
“Some more than others,” Nesta said, finally breaking her silence. She pushed off the banister she had been leaning against and stalked over to him. Lucien immediately tensed.
“Where is she?” Lucien asked, not addressing any one of them in particular.
“Out with Mor,” Nesta answered. “I think Amren went with them, so chances are they’re at a sweet shop.”
“I’ll go find them,” Azriel offered and in the blink of an eye, he vanished among the shadows.
Nesta surveyed Lucien with an unblinking gaze. He tried not to look away from her piercing glare as he attempted to lean against the back of one of the dining room chairs. Except it was farther away than he’d anticipated and his elbow sliced through the air instead of landing firmly on the chair back, making him stagger forward. He recovered as quickly as he could, standing straight with his arms crossed over his chest.
Nesta snorted and tried to hide the grin that pulled at her mouth.
“Wait, are you actually smiling?” Lucien asked with wide eyes. "Feyre, quick. Speed paint it before we lose the image forever!"
But now, Feyre was the silent one, leaning against Rhys with her arm around his waist.
“You went to retrieve those wings knowing it could have cost you your life,” Nesta said flatly.
“I told you not to die.”
“And I didn’t,” Lucien replied.
“You came awfully close.”
Feyre seemed to be holding her breath. Rhys just watched, ever calculating.
“In your lack of judgment, yes,” Nesta chastised. “But what you did for Rhysand...”
And then Nesta did the one thing Lucien would have never expected she would do. She hugged him.
When she came at him, arms up, he instinctively flinched. It was just a brief hug. Nothing overly emotional or particularly warm. But she hugged him.
She released him quickly and narrowed her eyes threateningly. “If you ever tell Elain I did that, I’ll lie through my teeth. And then I’ll have Amren tear you limb from limb.”
For once, Lucien didn’t even try to joke. “I absolutely believe you,” he stated.
“And if you ever do something that stupid again,” Nesta badgered, swatting at him as he deflected her lackluster blows, “I’ll go back to hating you. I won’t watch my sister grieve a moron.”
Lucien didn’t bother hiding his grin. He nudged her with his hip and crooned, “See, Nesta, I knew you cared.”
“Shut up...” she muttered, “...fox boy.”
Rhysand snorted. He'd been so quiet, Lucien had forgotten he was there. He looked over Feyre's shoulder, where the shadows in the corner of the room were rippling. He started when he saw Azriel emerge from them. He whispered something to Feyre, who glanced over at Lucien and nodded.
“C’mon,” she said, taking Lucien’s arm and linking hers through it. “I want to show you something.”
“But—” Lucien protested, weakly pointing at Azriel. If Elain was on her way back...
“She specifically asked me to do this,” Feyre said firmly, guiding him toward the front door.
“Fine,” he grumbled, letting himself be steered out the door and into the street.
“Where are we going?” He asked once the townhouse was barely visible. He kept glancing back at it as if hoping it would suddenly shine like a beacon once she had returned to it.
“You’ll see in a minute,” Feyre answered impatiently.
Lucien shivered as they walked. Though the sun hadn’t fully set, it was already low enough in the sky that most of its warmth had dissipated. There was a bite in the winter air—Lucien could see his breath in tiny puffs of vapor as they walked in the cold.
“Lucien,” Feyre said gently. “You were my first real friend in Prythian.”
Shoppers bustled past them, not giving them a second glance as they hurried around them, eager to get out of the cold.
“And what a poor excuse for a friend I was... Actually, I think the Suriel might have been your first friend,” Lucien countered wryly. “That creature was fond of you.”
Feyre poked him. “I’m serious.”
“Okay, okay,” he prattled. “Go on.”
Feyre stopped walking and Lucien had no choice but to stop too. She surveyed him with that same unblinking gaze that Nesta had worn back at the townhouse. “Do you truly love my sister? Or—”
“Or do I feel entitled to her because she's my mate?” He guessed.
Feyre gave him an apologetic smile, as if she didn’t want to have this conversation, but felt like it was necessary. “Well?”
Lucien sighed, taking his time to collect his thoughts before answering.
“I won't lie to you. At the very beginning, when you were still in the Spring Court, I did feel, I don’t know, like the mating bond meant that by the Mother and the Cauldron, she was for me and me alone...” He ran his hands through his long crimson hair, unbound and loose with the exception of one thin braid just above his ear.
“But Elain is not a pet or a possession,” he went on. “She’s the most remarkable person I have ever met. And she has the right to choose. If being with someone else, or no one else for that matter, brings her joy, then... I would relinquish the mating bond. It would kill me to do it, but I would do it for her.”
“Why?” Feyre pressed.
“Because I love her,” Lucien answered instantly. “I love her more than I’ve ever loved anyone. I love everything about her—the way she wrinkles her nose when she’s thinking about something. The way her eyes light up when she tends to her flowers. I love how gentle and caring she is. I thought about her every moment when we were on the continent. I saw her every time I closed my eyes. I want nothing more than for her to find peace and happiness… even if that means I have to give her up.”
Feyre sniffed, but Lucien couldn’t tell if it was from what he’d said or from the cold.
“Very well,” she said. “Come with me.”
She led them down the familiar walk toward Elain’s favorite restaurant... until they were standing on the stone bridge that stretched across the Sidra.
The Rainbow bustled with merchants and artists on the far side of the river. The late afternoon sun caught on an artist’s multi-colored glass mosaic, sending a kaleidoscope of colors across the surface of the river.
“What are we doing here?” He asked somewhat testily. He was cold and tired and all he wanted to do was to see Elain. Still, the natural beauty of the river was infectious. Lucien leaned against the stone railing and gazed out over the river, long and winding as it stretched out to the sea.
“I thought you might like to stand in the same place she did,” Feyre offered.
Lucien pushed off the railing and cocked his head sideways at Feyre. “What are you talking about?”
Before Feyre could answer, Elain appeared, just appeared, at the far end of the bridge. Her smile could barely be contained and her eyes were full of relief and joy. Lucien just stared at her for one long, lingering moment.
For all his reassuring talk of how he would only be gone a few days, it felt like a lifetime had passed since he’d seen that breathtaking smile. Elain had gathered her skirts in one fist and was running toward him. Lucien just stood, frozen in place, struggling to speak.
She stopped a foot in front of him, cheeks pink from the cold and her breath coming out in puffs.
Lucien said the first thing that popped into his head. "You winnowed."
Of all the things to say to her after being gone for days...
She giggled and nodded. Lucien’s russet eye instinctively glanced at her left hand. The strip of leather was still tied loosely around her wrist, but her hand was totally bare. The memory Feyre had shown him came rushing back to him.
“I want him to know I did it for him."
Lucien’s heart hammered inside his chest and he silently thanked Azriel again for insisting that he heal himself. As hard as his heart was pounding against his ribs, they would have been screaming in pain otherwise. He jerked his chin toward her hand. “Where—”
“At the bottom of the Sidra,” Elain answered, tears glistening in her doe-brown eyes.