It was just before dusk when they returned to Velaris, winnowing to the rooftop patio of Rhys’s townhouse. The house was warded against anyone outside of Rhysand’s Inner Circle winnowing directly into it.
“I’ll bet you anything Cassian and Rhys are waiting like vultures downstairs,” Elain said.
“Anything?” Lucien wiggled his eyebrows and his eye gleamed mischievously.
“Oh go on,” she rolled her eyes, pushing him toward the stairs. “Rascal.”
Elain shrieked as he pinched her waist. They paused in her room long enough for her to change after she made the valid point that if they went downstairs in the same clothes they left in, the teasing would be even worse. They could hear raucous laughter coming from downstairs as Lucien wove his fingers between Elain’s and led her down into the sitting room.
“Hey!” Cassian roared with delight. “Look who’s back!”
Rhys, Azriel, Mor, and Feyre all looked up, all of them smiling. There was a platter of meats and cheeses on the low-lying table in the center of the room. Clearly, the group was having one of the informal, lazy nights that Lucien had come to love.
Mor rose from an oversized armchair, gesturing for them to take it, as she handed Elain her own glass of wine. She poured herself a new one and squeezed between Cassian and Azriel on the sofa.
“Cabin still standing?” Cassian teased.
Elain settled into the chair while Lucien sat on the armrest. She leaned against him and smirked, “Wouldn’t you love to know?”
Feyre choked on her wine and gave her sister a look of surprise. Elain winked at her.
“Where’s Nesta and the tiny ancient one?” Lucien wondered.
“They should be back any minute,” Mor answered, trying and failing to keep Cassian from stealing her wine glass and taking a generous sip. “They went to look for a specific type of wine Nesta likes. Since someone has a drinking problem.”
“Moderation is for quitters,” Cassian pronounced.
"Boozehound," Mor muttered.
“So, who won?” Lucien asked.
“Won what?” Rhys asked innocently, though his smile all but gave him away.
“Oh, don’t play coy,” Elain simpered. “The bet you barbarians had about how long we’d be up at that cabin.”
“Oh, that bet,” Rhys said, picking a piece of nonexistent lint off his jacket.
Lucien nudged Elain. Told you they had a bet.
“Barbarians,” Cassian repeated, clicking his tongue. “You shouldn’t talk about your sisters like that.”
“My—” Elain gave Feyre a look of disbelief, but her sister wasn't looking at her. Feyre seemed very interested in her fingernails all of a sudden.
“Well, let’s see,” Cassian said, pulling out a folded slip of paper from underneath one of Tarquin’s blood rubies. “How long were you there? Four days?”
“Not quite four,” Elain said, looking up at Lucien for confirmation. “Three and a half?”
Lucien was taken aback by how utterly unconcerned Elain was discussing this. He’d expected her to blush and smile coquettishly, telling the rest of them it was none of their business. Not that he was about to give them a detailed account of everything that went on in the cabin. He’d take those memories to his grave before he shared them with anyone.
“Sounds about right,” he shrugged. Elain tilted her head back to rest it against his chest.
“Well, we didn’t do half-days,” Cassian said, reviewing the betting sheet. “So, we’ll go with four days.”
“I lost,” he admitted, scanning the list, “I guessed two days. You two were either more ravenous than I thought or you actually attempted to still behave like civilized people some of the time.”
Elain had just taken a sip of her wine and inhaled it. She coughed and spluttered, finally turning scarlet.
“Feyre, you’re out too,” Cassian continued. “She had three days. Same opinion as me, but she gave you more leisure time it seems.”
“Oh, my gods,” Elain muttered, resting the wine glass on the armrest that Lucien wasn't occupying and covering her face with her hands.
“I’m so glad you all put so much thought into this,” Lucien grumbled.
Cassian just sniggered as he checked the sheet again. “Looks like Azriel only gave you a day.”
“Damn, Az,” Lucien quipped. “And here I thought we were friends.”
“Not my fault they were vague with the terms,” Azriel remarked. “The bet was for how long you’d be at the cabin . I said one day because I assumed you’d high tail it out of there the moment you saw all of our eyes staring down at you.”
“Yeah, about that,” Lucien barked, snapping his head over to Feyre. “Those are creepy.”
“They are not,” Feyre argued.
“They are when you’re naked,” Mor sang.
Elain choked on her wine again. She gave the glass an offensive glare before draining it and setting it on the table in front of her. She seemed not to trust what might come out of anybody else’s mouth and didn’t want to run the risk of inhaling another sip.
“Mor lost by three days,” Cassian calculated. “She gave you a week.”
Elain raised her eyebrows at Mor.
“These things aren’t to be rushed,” she simply said with a little shrug. She wrestled her wine glass out of Cassian's hand.
“But Rhys,” Cassian drawled as he checked the sheet again, “why, he gave you two whole weeks.”
“That’s flattering,” Lucien chuckled. Elain elbowed him in the ribs.
Rhys stretched his arms over his head before draping one around Feyre’s waist and pulling her closer to him. “If I’d had my way, Feyre and I wouldn’t have left that cabin for at least two weeks.”
The look Feyre gave him suggested she wanted to return to that cabin immediately and take him up on that offer.
“And yet,” Cass provoked, stroking his chin as if in deep thought, “you were only there a day...”
“We were in the middle of a war!” Rhys appealed, looking to Feyre for support. She just laughed and shook her head softly, her expression plainly saying he wouldn't be getting any help from her.
“Can’t you just tell us who won so we can talk about something else?” Elain muttered.
“Nope,” Cassian said cheerfully. “We’ve all been waiting for this moment since you left so abruptly from family dinner.”
“Screw you, Cass,” Elain griped.
Cassian’s eyes flashed with mischief. “Is that an offer?”
Lucien slowly slid his arm around Elain’s shoulders. The gesture seemed completely casual and unthreatening, but the growl that accompanied it sent a clear message to the room. And though no one else could, Elain heard the instinctual thought behind the growl.
Elain leaned into his arm and reached for the hand on her shoulder, weaving her fingers between his.
“You truly have a death wish, don’t you, Cass?” Feyre said with a disbelieving shake of her head.
“What can I say,” he shrugged. “I like to keep things interesting. Sweet Miss Archeron knows I mean no harm.” He inclined his head to Elain.
She studied him for a moment, her head held high, every bit of the nobleman's daughter she once was. Her gaze was harsh and unforgiving and in that moment, Lucien could easily see the resemblance she bore to her elder sister. He shivered inwardly at how... Nesta she looked.
“Actually,” she objected, “I’m a mated female, so I believe that’s Mrs. Vanserra to you.”
The silence was palpable.
Lucien’s heart skipped a beat... and then another. Yes, it was true they’d been Mated and she had every right to take his name if she chose. He'd thought about it, hoped for it, but hadn’t really expected it. Least of all, not before it was officiated by a priestess. But here she was, this miracle who never stopped surprising him, declaring herself his in front of almost everyone they loved. If he'd never cared about his first name, he certainly had never cared about his surname. But suddenly, with her claiming it, it no longer represented Beron and his rancor. It represented them.
She looked up at him tentatively.
I hope that was okay... I didn't think, I just said it. I know it’s not Helion’s surname, but—
I love you so fucking much.
Lucien kissed her, which broke the spell of silence around them. The rest of the group made general sounds of impression and approval.
"My sincerest apologies," Cassian dipped his head to Elain, "Mrs. Vanserra.”
He clawed at Mor's fingers, trying to make her release her wine glass again until she finally rolled her eyes and released it.
"Just keep the damn thing," she groused.
Cassian took a hearty sip before glancing down at the betting sheet once more.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” he muttered.
At that moment, the front door swung open, a flurry of snow sweeping into the foyer.
“We had to go to three different shops to find my wine, Cass!” Nesta hollered from the entryway. “Three! All because you can’t keep your paws off mine and just drink your own damn whiskey. If you so much as touch— Elain!”
Nesta cut herself off when she noticed her sister among their group even as Lucien muttered, "He better not."
Elain just giggled.
“You’re back!” Nesta cried with delight.
“And you won,” Cassian said to Nesta.
Amren was half a step behind her, flakes of snow on her mdnight-black hair already melting. “Damn you, girl,” she groused, setting down a paper bag on the counter. Its contents clinked—evidently, Nesta had bought several bottles as backups. “You couldn’t have stayed away for one more day? I haven’t seen Varian in over a month.”
Elain’s brow furrowed in confusion. She glanced over at Cassian for clarification.
“Whoever won the bet got to... ah, use the cabin next,” he explained, his expression turning lustful as he addressed Nesta. “So even though I lost, I still won, right?”
Nesta gave him a cynical glare. “Who says you’re coming with me?”
“Well, who else would you take up there!” Cassian demanded indignantly.
“Oh, don’t be so obscene, Cass,” Feyre snipped.
"I'm sorry, have you met him?" Azriel chuckled, his shadows curling around his hands as he took a swig of whiskey.
“The agreement was whoever won could go to the cabin for a getaway of any kind," Feyre explained. "Even just to go up there by yourself and read if you wanted. And whoever lost by the largest margin had to take over the winner’s normal duties and responsibilities until they came back.”
“I’m tempted to give the prize to Amren,” Nesta taunted, “just to wipe that smirk off his face.”
Cassian’s face did indeed fall, his grin shifting into a pouting frown.
“Incorrigible,” Nesta mumbled.
The rest of the evening passed relatively uneventfully. After a bit more heckling from Rhys, Cass, and Azriel, the topic (mercifully) shifted away from Lucien and Elain’s time in the cabin. Feyre recounted most of what happened on the continent, with some help from Lucien, though he deliberately left out the bits involving Vassa coming to his room.
“Oh!” Feyre shrilled. “And you’ll never believe who was padding the pockets of that hateful queen while she was cursed.”
Lucien desperately tried to get her attention, as he realized with an uncomfortable jolt that he hadn’t gotten around to telling Elain about—
“Graysen!” Feyre cried.
A collective groan of disgust moved through the room as everyone expressed their displeasure. Elain’s eyes widened and her mouth fell open in surprise. Lucien tried to speak, but nothing came out.
Shit shit shit. I’m sorry. I didn’t get a chance to tell you... I swear I wasn't withholding it just to sleep with you first. You have to know it's not like that. I just... fuck.
No, it’s not. You shouldn’t have had to find out that way. And you probably think I kept it from you because it would have ruined things at the cabin and... I'm sorry.
Look at me.
Lucien stared at the carpet.
Lucien, look at me.
Elain laid her hand on his thigh and he turned his head toward her. She gave him a reassuring smile that he weakly tried to return.
I don't think that's what you were doing at all. And I'm glad you didn't bring it up. I wouldn't have wanted him in my mind when we were together in that cabin. He doesn't deserve to occupy my mind any longer. I'm yours. He can go to hell.
The general upheaval around the room had quieted, as everyone seemed to realize Elain hadn’t known. They watched tensely for her reaction even as she waited for him to reply through their bond, but he remained silent.
She shifted in the armchair so she could look up at Lucien. “Please tell me you set him on fire.”
“Oh-ho!” Cassian roared, slapping his own thigh. “She’s feisty!”
Amren and Mor were nodding appreciatively while Lucien just gaped at her.
“What?” Elain said defensively.
“He, uh... he actually tried to,” Feyre admitted. “I stopped him.”
Elain peered at her sister and shrugged, “That’s a shame.” The cold unforgiving glare that reminded Lucien so much of Nesta had returned. He didn't think Elain had the capacity to hate anyone... but clearly, he was wrong.
“But...” Feyre stammered, “I thought you’d—”
“Be upset? Why, because we used to be engaged?” Elain’s eyebrows arched. “I’m not generally a hateful malicious person—"
"I know you're not," Feyre said.
"But," Elain said firmly, "I can’t say I’d feel any remorse over it. He was cruel and callous when we went to him in our time of need, begging for help.”
“Well, in all fairness,” Feyre conceded, “Lucien didn’t actually try to incinerate him until he slandered you.”
Lucien tightened his hold on her waist.
"What did he say?"
"I'm not repeating it," Feyre insisted.
Elain tugged on the bond.
What did he say?
Nope. I’m not repeating it either.
I love you.
He leaned his forehead against hers.
Not nearly as much as I love you.
“Excuse me,” Cassian called, waving his arms wildly. “You two wanna share with the group?”
“No,” Lucien and Elain said together, not even looking in his direction.
“Rude,” Cassian grumbled, though a smirk played on his lips.
Mor nudged him. “Leave them alone. They’re a newly Mated couple.”
“I know,” Rhys jibed. “So disgustingly sentimental.”
“You two are just bitter,” Azriel laughed.
“I agree, Az,” Mor said. “Rhys and Feyre were Mated in the middle of that mess with Hybern and as for Cass... Well, we love you, Nesta but you’re just not the sentimental type.”
Nesta clicked her tongue. “How did this get flipped to me and Cassian?”
“Probably because they love watching you turn every shade of the fucking rainbow when it’s brought up,” Amren said with a wry smile as she handed Nesta a glass of wine.
“Oh, piss off, all of you.”
Cassian rose from the sofa and stretched obnoxiously. He paraded over to Nesta and said, “Since all the attention has somehow shifted off Mr. and Mrs. fox boy, might as well milk it for all it’s worth.”
He put one hand on Nesta’s lower back and before she could stop him, he pulled her in and kissed her right in front of everyone. Nesta’s spluttering and protests died on her lips as Cassian covered her mouth with his.
Mor, Rhys, Lucien, and even Azriel hollered various catcalls and wolf-whistles.
Feyre stifled a yawn and only then did Lucien realize how late it was. Time just raced by with this group. What felt like a few minutes would end up being hours. It was effortless to fall into place with them. His friends. His family.
“Alright, you freeloaders,” Rhys said, “you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here. Well, I mean, you can... but I’m carrying my tired ass to bed.”
The group collectively rose from their seats, returning wine and whiskey glasses to the kitchen and straightening up.
“Oh, before we turn in,” Rhys added, turning to Lucien as he reached into his pocket, “I thought you might want these.”
He handed a small ring with two keys on it to Lucien. “To your house,” he clarified.
Lucien had almost forgotten that Rhys bought him a townhouse. He took the keys with a wordless nod of thanks.
“And I took the liberty of having the ground floor patio modeled into a garden identical to the one here,” Rhys said.
Elain’s eyes lit up. “Oh, Rhys, did you really?” She chirped. “Thank you so much!”
“Of course,” he said with a little bow. “You’re family.”
Nearly everyone had either already left or was in the process of leaving—Amren and Mor announced they were going dancing, Azriel disappeared into the shadows, and Cassian was coaxing Nesta out the front door.
Nesta sighed and took his outstretched hand, turning back to glance at Elain. They shared a smile before Nesta nodded to Cassian. “Okay, let’s go.”
“You’ll have to furnish the house as you see fit,” Rhys told Lucien and Elain. “I had the basics from your room here sent over just so you didn't have to sleep here tonight." He winked at Lucien. "Most of the furniture and home decor stores have already been told to put whatever you need on my account.”
“Rhys... that’s not—”
“It is necessary,” he insisted firmly. “I could buy you a thousand townhouses and it wouldn’t equate to what you did for me.”
“I didn’t do it for you to do all this,” Lucien protested weakly.
“I know,” Rhys replied. “Which is exactly why I’m doing it.”
Lucien huffed a sigh of defeat. “Thank you.”
Feyre gave Elain a brief hug before starting up the stairs. Lucien took Elain’s hand in his and his heart skipped a beat when she smiled at him. He suspected that was something that would never diminish with time. At least, he hoped it didn’t. He brought her hand to his mouth and kissed it softly. His mate—by the might of the Cauldron and the will of the Mother. But beyond that... she was the love of his life, by the doctrine of his heart.
“Let’s go home,” he murmured.