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When Elain Archeron broke up with her boyfriend, it was devastating. For her anyway, her family and friends were ecstatic, privately and quietly in her presence, and sometimes loudly when she wasn’t around. It wasn’t that they were happy to see Elain broken-hearted—Gods, never—but rather that they were glad to see the object of Elain’s misguided affections gone. Out of the picture.

Graysen was a dick, Azriel regularly thought to himself. The man was proud and vain and frankly an idiot if he believed that Elain didn’t deserve him. If he felt he could do better.

Azriel also knew he was horribly bias on the matter of Elain Archeron. So he kept those thoughts to himself, boiling under his skin.

They were friends—best friends, and it was both the best thing to ever happen to Azriel Knight and the worse thing to ever happen to Azriel Knight. Because being friends with Elain gave him something to lose. That is were he to ever make a move on the silent, growing attraction, he felt towards the sweetest person he's ever met. It meant that if he asked, Elain might say no—might never talk to him again. Might break his heart.

“You’ll never know if you don’t try,” Rhys would sing to his brother, seeing through the quiet moping Azriel liked to do in the privacy of his own home. If only his family would respect that privacy, leave him be. “Maybe she’ll confess her undying love to you as well.”

“Yeah,” Cassian barked, helpfully through a mouthful of pizza. “Or she’ll run away from you and never speak to you again.”

Rhys paused his game of one man catch, head swiveling in the direction of his other brother. “Helpful, Cass. Very helpful.”

Rhys And Cassian were only teasing, of course. Everyone knew that Elain had eyes for Azriel. Well, except for Azriel. And Elain.

“Ugh,” Azriel groaned, grabbing a pillow and burying his face beneath it. Go away, it sounded like he said from underneath the fabric. They laughed, and they stayed, and they ate all his pizza.

Then Elain met Graysen, and the opportunity to do anything dissolved like a puff of smoke, gone before he’d hardly had a chance to consider his options. Or to even gather the courage to begin considering them.

He decided he was okay with it, even if he wasn’t. Azriel wasn’t the type of guy to step in the way of a relationship that had nothing to do with him, even if it was his best friend’s. One date turned into two dates. Two turned into three. Three became four.

Then one day, they moved in with each other, settled down with a ring and plans for the future. By then, Azriel was purely, genuinely happy for them, but he’d still catch the furtive glances his brothers would send his way. Feyre would eye him suspiciously sometimes, curious but kind enough not to pick at old, scarred over wounds. By then, Azriel just ignored them convinced that his feelings were gone, that they'd faded with time.

And then one day, Elain Archeron and Graysen broke up. Out of nowhere. She called Azriel in tears; he drove to the apartment and picked her up without being asked. Rhys and Feyre met them at the house for moral support; Cassian kept Nesta from committing first-degree murder. Morrigan brought the alcohol, and Elain cried, drank her body weight in liquor, and fell asleep in the crook of Azriel’s arm.

He didn’t think twice about offering her his spare room. Azriel would do it for anyone, and Elain wasn’t anyone. She was his best friend.

“Azriel,” Elain said softly, her eyes still rimmed red. She looked so pretty in the morning light, even with her bed head and pillow creases and hangover. “I can’t just crash on your couch.”

“Or course not,” he smiled. “Not when there’s a perfectly good guest bed.”

“Azriel,” Elain looked unimpressed but also unwillingly amused. It made him happy.

“I know Cassian burnt the curtain,” Azriel continued playing at ignorance. “But we can always replace it. If it bothers you. I’ll let you pick something out. You’ve got a better eye than me anyway. I just pick whatever they have in black. Sometimes gray, if I’m feeling adventurous.”

“That’s not what I meant, and you know it,” Elain reaches across the counter to pinch his arm, smiling at his banter. Azriel just laughed. He was happy to see her look something other than sad—even if the emotion on her face was frustration, aimed at him.

“I know,” he told her, sobering. “But honestly, El, I don’t mind. Stay.”

Azriel told himself that she couldn’t hear the longing in his voice, that she just saw him as a friend and that this was what friends did for each other. Azriel also told himself that he was okay with that, even though he wasn’t.

No one was more surprised at that discovery than him.

Having Elain Archeron live with him was so much worse than he could have imagined.

She was just—perfect. It was so unfair. And Graysen really was a dick.

If Azriel thought Elain was pretty before, he was lost now that he lived with her, saw her bright-eyed and unkempt in the mornings, soft and sleepy at night. The woman had a natural grace; Azriel had always appreciated it before, but now there was no avoiding the truth of it. She was everywhere. They lived together.

His old feelings for her rekindled with ease, erupted from the ashes of an old, lost love. It was almost as if they’d never actually gone away, but rather that he had learned to ignore them.

Azriel was a mess on the inside, but on the outside, he was strong for Elain.

Because Azriel still heard her sniffling at night, and sometimes, he still caught her red-eyed with a determined-to-be-happy smile. She was healing, and he loved her.

There’d be time for that, for everything. Later.

Elain kept her part-time job working for a local flower shop, but Azriel and she both knew that it didn’t pay much, practically anything. Still, she insisted on paying rent each month, precisely on the fourteenth. The anniversary of the date she moved in. The anniversary of her breakup. Azriel wanted to turn her down, to refuse her; he’d rather have her spend that money on something else, something for her, something she wanted.

But it wasn’t easy to deny an Archeron sister, not when they got that fiery, stubborn look in their eye or when they challenged you with one strong, arched brow. So, Azriel accepted the money, and he used it to stock the house with little things she liked, played it off as stuff for himself.

And when he found Elain curled up somewhere, hiding the tears, Azriel was ready, armed with a mug of her favorite tea and some quiet company. She cried less and less these days. Time heals all wounds.

The rest of the group liked to tease them mercilessly, separately, of course. The boys were always ganging up on Azriel; the second Rhys caught sight of one of Azriel’s small, rare smiles at the mere mention of his new roommate, it was game over for his peace of mind. The taunted began.

Feyre, of course, poked and prodded at Elain. Elain’s little sister and her sharp eyes saw right through both of them. She wasn’t brave enough to confront Azriel about his ridiculousness, but Feyre could pick on Elain. Elain never said anything, never gave Feyre any answers, but if Azriel saw how his roommate blushed under the scrutiny, maybe he would have taken action sooner.

Things became unbearably domestic.

I don’t even know you!

“I don’t even know you,” Elain repeated, tossing popcorn at the television screen. Azriel laughed. “Of course, you don’t! You’ve known each other for like two minutes!”

“I think it’s been more like a week, at least,” Azriel told her seriously. Elain started to toss popcorn in his direction instead, and he laughed good-naturedly. He loved it when Elain got like this; he loved her. “And we’ve been watching for at least an hour now.”

It didn’t take much for Elain to convince Azriel to do something with her; so, it didn’t take much to get Azriel to watch the Christmas movie with her either. What he hadn’t known was that he was signing up for a mockery.

“Whatever,” Elain scoffed. “They’ve batted their eyes at each other, like, twice. Idiots.” More popcorn.

When the love interest on the screen looked defeated, Elain scoffed, tossed popcorn. Again. Azriel didn’t even mind, smiling at her and sipping at his coffee. He’d help her pick up the mess later. “Oh, look! Someone’s learned a new emotion. You’ve leveled up Misunderstood Prince.

“This is heckling; you’re heckling,” Azriel told Elain. Another piece of popcorn hit him square between the brows, and Azriel just smiled. He loved her.

One day after work, Azriel discovered his apartment door ajar.

He panicked, rushing in with just one thought in his head. Elain. They were always careful to make sure that the door was shut, locked, and secure; Velaris was not precisely the safest town to live in, even if he’d seen worse. But, Elain was home most days by now, and the door was just left open! What if something was wrong?

“Oh! Azriel!” Elain cheered upon his arrival, missing out on how his wide, fearful eyes morphed into confusion, then into amusement. She wore a pair of reindeer antlers on her head.

Christmas was everywhere. Elain was decorating, and he wasn’t sure where she got the ornaments from. Or the tree for that matter. Azriel never decorated for Christmas, always left that up to the rest of the family. He always just went to their homes for the holiday celebrations.

“You’re home early!” She cried, skipping to him and greeting him with a hug and a heart-stopping kiss on the cheek. Lately, she'd been doing more of that, started being more and more casually affectionate with him. He and Elain had always been close, been comfortable around each other, but now it drove Azriel mad.

He wanted to kiss her, often. And a few other things.

Azriel shook his head to clear his thoughts. “Yeah, I got off work early. I figured we could continue our marathon?”

Elain snorted, muttering something about those idiots.

They watched the next movie in the Christmas series, anyway, and then they watched the next one, too.

This time Elain convinced Azriel to string popcorn for the tree. He obliged, but most of it still ended up on the rug between the couch and the television. They bought some garland instead.

They’re having dinner when it all comes to a head.

Elain cooked his favorite meal, and Azriel brought home her favorite dessert, cupcakes from the bakery near his work. They work around each other with ease, recapping their days to one another; Elain is still complaining about the movie series, but she has another set of movies picked out to watch this weekend.

“I need to talk to you about something,” Elain told Azriel that night. His body immediately filled with dread.

“What is it, El?” He tried to pretend that his heart wasn’t racing, threatening to break its way right out of his chest and run away.

“I don’t want to live in your guest bedroom anymore,” the woman told him simply; Azriel’s heart fell.

“Oh.” Azriel stared at his plate. “Okay.”

They were quiet for a long time, each staring at their food. Elain appeared to come to a decision, taking a deep drink from her wine glass; then, she squared her shoulders and looked Azriel dead in the eye.

Or she would have if he’d look up at her.

Azriel was crushed. Shoulders slumped and face ashen; he looked as if he’d just received the worst news of his life. He didn’t know it, but the way he looked persuaded Elain to soften her next blow, to ask the words gently rather than accuse them.

“Azriel,” she said his name so softly that he might die. Azriel would stare at this table until he did. She wanted to leave. He knew it would happen eventually, knew that she’d desire her own independence, and Elain deserved it, deserved to do her own thing after so much time spent under Graysen’s thumb, but—

“I’d rather be sleeping in your bed,” Elain decided to take the direct route. The path of Nesta.

She’d had a speech prepared, had practiced it on Nesta a few dozen times, and only ever received a simple arch of the brow and silent disapproval. Eventually, Nesta had cut her off mid rehearsal and told Elain simply: Just go fuck him now. You’re basically already married.

Azriel made no move to look up from the table, but Elain caught his sharp intake of breath. She persevered.

“I’ve been absolutely trying for weeks to get you to make a move,” Elain continues; now, she’s too embarrassed to look at him, choosing to stare at the Christmas tree she can see over his broad shoulder. “But either you’re just that fucking respectful of my boundaries, or you have no interest in me and have been trying to gently let me down all this time.

“So, I need to know which it is. Because I’ve got somewhere to go if I’ve just ruined everything, but I think—and I’m pretty sure I’m right—that you love me, too.” Azriel’s head snapped up at last, eyes wide and expression shell shocked. It caused her to lose her focus, forget her words. Elain hadn’t planned to say love, had intended to ease her way into this. Gods, she’s ruined everything, scared him off. Her best friend, her—

“Don’t leave,” Azriel pleaded, voice rough. “Please, don’t leave.”

Hope flared in them both.

“Azriel,” Elain began again, confused. It wasn’t exactly a no, but it wasn’t a yes either.

Then Azriel rose from the table. He never was a man for many words, and Elain knew better than anyone that he was always slow to show his hand, much less to speak it. She held her breath as he tugged her out of her chair, tucked the loose strands of her hair behind her ear. She’d worn his favorite dress, the one she knew always caught his eye; it seemed silly, but Elain just wanted everything on her side. She wanted this to work. He did, too.

Azriel kissed her, slow and sweet, and full of all the words that he’d have for her with time. This was just the beginning.

Azriel was the luckiest man alive.

That was all he could think as he watched Elain work, hosting the family Christmas party with a big happy smile plastered to her face. He didn’t find her tucked away and sniffling anymore, and Elain never had to fake her way through a smile these days. She was happy.

Azriel was happy, too. Cassian and Rhys were sure to remind him of that fact always.

“Eyes on your cards!” Cassian whopped him on the back of the head, bringing him back to the card game at hand. He was loosing, horribly, too distracted to pay attention.

Rhys grinned that wicked smile of his and sent him a wink. “Give him a break, Cass. He’s in love.”

Azriel turned redder than the ornaments on the tree, and Cassian howled with delight, locking his blushing brother into a headlock, only because he could. Feyre giggled from her place at Rhys’s side, sipping a glass of wine and enjoying herself.

Once free from Cassian’s grasp, Azriel’s eyes couldn’t help but trail back towards his girlfriend, where she stood in the kitchen talking to her eldest sister. The quirk of Nesta’s mouth told him that she’d just said something smart to Elain, and based upon her blushing, Azriel knew what, or who, it was about.

Their eyes met across the room. The teasing didn’t matter, he decided; it was worth it in the end.