Azriel decided that he was the luckiest man alive the day that he got the shy baker from his favorite café to agree to a date. He’d been mooning over her for ages, catching himself staring at her while attempting to eat his breakfast and thinking about her soft smiles often. On more than one occasion, his family had noticed his daydreaming, called him out on it:
Earth to Azriel.
Where’d you go?
Hey—what’s with the goofy smile?
IS IT A GIRL?
For a while, all the pair did was blush at one another—from across a dinner table rather than a bakery counter for once. They shared secret smiles and giggled with nerves. At first, it was uncomfortable, but it was the right kind of uncomfortable, the type that made one giddy with nerves and made your heart race and your voice abandon you.
Elain was amazing. Azriel was hers.
Azriel's managed so far to keep her to himself for a while now, to enjoy the process of getting to know Elain without interference. He preferred to do so without the overwhelming presence of his family, meddlers that they were; they tended to be a lot for newcomers. They meant well, of course, and they knew of her existence, but Azriel had yet to introduce them to her. But, he was thinking of inviting her along to the next family trip to the cabin.
Azriel thought she’d enjoy it. Hoped Elain would say yes.
Things hadn’t changed much between them otherwise, not since dating. They just saw more of each other now, at places other than the bakery. Azriel still visited Elain’s every morning for his coffee and bagel, but now Elain had it prepared for him in advance, insisted that payment be in the form of a kiss rather than any money.
“One second!” Elain calls from the other side of the door when Azriel knocks. She appears a moment later, dressed is a sage green apron that makes her chocolate eyes glow. Azriel’s been lost in those depths more than a few times now.
This morning during breakfast, Elain surprised him with an offer. One he couldn’t refuse; not that he believed he could deny her anything. Elain invited him to dinner at her place. She’d said the words so quickly that they all blended together, became one long strung out word: Wouldyouliketohavedinneratmyplace?
Azriel smiled, tucked the stray hair that was always in her face behind her ear, and told Elain I’d love to.
“Azriel!” Elain cheers, always glad to see him, but she frowns soon after, looking over her shoulder to check the time. “You’re early.”
It’s true. Nerves pushed Azriel out the door and into the cold far sooner than he needed to leave, so he went into town and bought Elain flowers, picked up some wine, but even then, the man has arrived too soon. Guilty as charged.
“Oh! Yeah, uh I,” Azriel frowns. He can’t bring himself to say the words: I was too nervous to wait at home, burning a hole into my carpet. He shrugs. “I made good time?”
They stare at each other for a moment. Azriel's probably ruined all of her plans, he thinks. Elain is definitely the type of girl that likes to have everything ready and in place for her guests. So that when he arrived, Elain could swing open the door and say Surprise! He’s ruined that.
“I can go, come back,” Azriel offers quickly, wincing at how ridiculous he sounds. He’s always been a man of few words, the type of person to think before he speaks. Yet around Elain, all of that just goes away; he blurts silly things and talks too fast, and just all around makes a fool of himself.
He hates it. He loves it. He can’t get enough.
“No!” She squeaks, just as quickly, blushing. Perhaps Azriel has the same effect on her too. “Please, come in.”
Elain opens the door wide, waving him in with a smile. Her simple loft-style apartment puts his barebones home to shame; Azriel is the kind of guy that lives with essentials, doesn’t spend money on color coordinating furniture or collecting throw pillows. But Elain does all of those things. And the result is miraculous. She’s made a dull space into a home. Into something that represents her.
Azriel catches her nervous look and smiles. He was staring. “Sorry. Your place—it’s lovely.”
Elain beams under the praise, that blush he likes still high on her cheeks. Then Elain gives him an apologetic look. “I’m sorry nothing is ready. I—“
“It’s no problem,” he interrupts. “I’m the early one. Here,” he offers her the flowers and wine. “Consider this my apology. And my thanks.”
Elain beams again at him; it makes his heart do funny things. She takes the gifts, if a little shyly, and turns away towards the kitchen, but then Elain stops, brow furrowed as she comes to a decision. Azriel swallows nervously when she returns to his side.
His mind spirals, looking for the explanation. Elain drinks wine, doesn't she? Yes, he remembers her having some at dinner befire. Wait, was it red or white? Azriel remembers her saying I like wine.
Oh, gods. Is she allergic to flowers? Wait—he eyes all the plants—that doesn’t make sense.
Then Elain is tugging at his collar, bringing him down to her level for a kiss that’s considerably less chaste than the ones from breakfast, and Azriel’s mind goes blank. It makes his head spin, leaves him breathless and wanting for more.
Just as quickly, Elain releases him, sending him a sly smile before abandoning him to resume her cooking. Azriel openly gapes after her, waiting for his brain to catch up with his restarting heart.
“Can I help?” His voice comes out rough; it’s embarrassing.
For the most part, they’ve been taking things slow, enjoying their time, and getting to know each other. If Azriel was craving more of her before, well, he was a man starved now.
His date just a hums a no as if she is afraid of what her own voice might sound like. The pink stains blooming down her face and neck tell Azriel that he’s not the only one affected.
Then in a voice just a little too high, “Make yourself at home!”
He would do just that except that Azriel is acutely aware of the fact that he’s in Elain’s home. This is where she spends most of her time, where she lives, where she sleeps. He can’t help but steal a glance in the direction of her bed, tucked neatly into a corner of the space by a window. Potted plants dangle from the window sill. Azriel averts his eyes quickly, suddenly feeling as if he’s invaded her personal space.
“Are you sure, El?” He asks. Elain waves him off; there’s a smudge of something on her cheek.
Azriel wants to follow after her like the lost puppy he is, but something tells him that Elain wouldn’t hear of it. He floats towards the couch instead, perches on the end of it.
He’s too nervous to focus on much, still reeling from that kiss.
A light thump draws Azriel’s eye from a painting on the wall and towards the coffee table in front of him. Sitting before him is a fluffy, orange tabby cat, eyeing him with glowing, greenish eyes.
Elain owns a cat.
Now, Azriel was already aware of the creature’s existence, of the place it held in Elain’s heart. He’s known Elain for a while, long before he got up the nerve to ask her out; they’d spoken about the cat before. Casual mentions of You won’t believe what Ginger did, or Ging knocked over one of my plants again, and I spent the whole night gluing the pot back together. But until now, it hadn’t precisely clicked for him what that meant.
Elain owns a cat.
And Azriel is very, very allergic to cats.
His nose tickled, just looking at it. Ginger holds his stare, but Azriel has no idea what it wants. Azriel doesn't know anything about cats, other than the fact that he needs to stay clear of them. Shit.
“Hello there,” Azriel’s faced many a foe in his lifetime, a fact he could thank both his prior military service and current job in private security for. But none of those villains ever made his voice waver like the feline in front of him does. The cat licks its lips, smelling his fear.
Then the little beast does the unthinkable and jumps elegantly, landing right into Azriel’s unsuspecting arms. He—if Azriel recalls correctly—starts to purr happily, staring up at him with wide, unblinking eyes. Azriel swallows once, waiting.
“Gingersnap,” Elain’s voice is warning from the other side of the loft. “Be good. Sorry, Az. He has a tendency to come on a bit strong. Ging is very friendly, though. If a bit pushy.”
Azriel knows that Elain is trying to be assuring, but a friendly cat is just about the worst news ever for him. To reinforce his owner’s promise, Gingersnap bumps his head right into Azriel’s face, clacking his teeth shut with the force. Oh no.
Azriel’s eyes began to water immediately, without permission. But Ginger just purrs more, butting his head against Azriel a second time, clearly perturbed that this new human won’t give him the attention he so desires, deserves. Reluctantly, Azriel reaches out, placing a hand on the cats back. The feline arches into the attention, chirping happily.
“He likes you,” Elain says a little while later. She plops onto the couch with him, smiling at the newfound friendship. Gingersnap has curled into his lap, settling in comfortably for a nice nap. Azriel looks to her uncertainly.
“Not a cat person?” His date asked nervously, a furrow in her brow. There’s no way that he can tell her now, break the news so. Azriel just decides to go to the doctor as soon as possible, get that prescription he never really needed before.
“Never really been around them,” Azriel says, bending the truth. It’s not really a lie he tells himself; he’s just omitted the reason for staying away from them.
“Gingersnap is a good starter cat,” Elain declares proudly, reaching into his space to scratch the top of her cat’s head fondly. “He’s always nice to anyone that comes around.”
“Awesome,” Azriel sends her what he hopes is a convincing smile.
“But now he needs to get up,” Elain sings towards the cat. “Because dinner is going to get cold.”
The cat displays no signs of having heard, or having cared about, Elain’s words; instead, Ginger remains where he lies, purring contentedly and doing something funny with his claws. Kneading, Azriel realizes. He’s kneading. The man runs his hand down the fur on the cats back; it’s so soft. He’s going to regret this later, he knows, but he can't stop petting it.
“C’mon you brat,” Elain huffs. She reaches for her pet, to pick him up from Azriel’s lap. Ginger grumbles his displeasure but refuses to leave, digging in his claws, and Az clears his throat, made awkward by her nearness as she fights the cat in his lap.
The sound makes Elain realize their positioning, that she’s practically climbed into his lap after her pet demon. She flushes, jerks away at first, but Azriel holds her gaze, forgetting the discomfort and leaning in. Elain mirrors him, drawn back into his space by the look in his eyes; her own drift down to his lips. It makes his heart race.
And then Azriel sneezes, loud and suddenly—he just barely averts his face to keep from sneezing all over her. May the Earth swallow him whole.
But Elain just breaks into giggles, smiling and rubbing her hand down his arm in consolation. When Azriel meets her warm eyes, she simply tells him, laughter in her voice, “Gesundheit.”
On the other hand, Ginger protests the noise with a squawk and flees the scene; Elain flashes a smile at Azriel, unfazed by the interruption or Azriel’s embarrassment. “Let’s eat!”
Azriel’s been acting funny all night, Elain thinks.
His behavior reminds her of just before he asked her out.
The weeks leading up to the moment in question were filled with awkward silences and jerky gestures and sometimes, just plain running away. Elain remembers watching on more than one occasion as Azriel had some silent argument with himself; he would go still while his brain processed the implications, and then just like that, he'd make up an excuse and disappear like a puff of smoke. Elain always thought it was cute for him to be so nervous, knew she acted much the same whenever he hit her with the full force of that dazzling smile.
But tonight, he’s just been—weird.
At first, Elain was struck with the horror that perhaps he didn’t like cats. A devastating discovery to be had at such a stage in dating, just as Elain knew she was head over heels. She loves her cat, wants other people to love her cat, gets irrationally mad when people are mean to her cat. He’s her cat.
They settle into their seats at the creaky little dining table Elain rescued from the curb outside. She’d sanded and painted it all by herself, threw a tablecloth over it to hide what she couldn’t fix, but there is no hiding that creak. It haunts her every time she bumps into it, every time Ging decids to hop up on it.
Azriel must see her frown because he smiles in reassurance. “I’ll take a look at it for you. See if I can fix it.”
“Oh, no. You don’t have to trouble yourself.” Elain tells him. She’s always hated asking for help for anything, a family trait.
“I insist—after dinner,” Azriel’s eyes crinkle as he smiles, nodding towards the food; it makes her heart flutter. She likes him so much, waited for ages for him to say something, to ask her out. Now he’s here—in her apartment, smiling across the rickety table at her, offering to fix things, giving her heated stares.
As cute as it was, Elain really wishes he hadn’t sneezed like that. After that kiss at the door, she wanted more.
“Okay,” she breathes.
They dig into dinner and open the wine Azriel brought. From the kitchen counter, the flowers he brought her smile at them. Elain wanted them there, not hiding away somewhere else, not that it was easy to hide anything in this place. Except for Ginger. That little monster was always vanishing into thin air.
Elain invited Azriel over that morning, spontaneously. And while she’d never regret an opportunity to spend more time with the man, she was more than a little mad at herself when she realized she had nowhere to hide all of her stuff.
She’d fled home at the end of her shift, dismayed by all the clutter. Elain had a tendency to make little piles of things. A stack of magazines to read over there, on the stool she never used; potted plants all over the table, soaking in the light the winter sun offered through her window.
Her clothes—God they’d been everywhere. She lived alone, so it didn’t matter how she hung them up to dry. That is until Elain decided to invite a guy over. When she returned home, saw all of her bras draped about to dry, just hanging in plain view, she about lost it.
In the end, everything was shoved into the little closet near her bed; Azriel was never allowed anywhere near that closet.
Meow. Gingersnap announces himself before launching onto the table. The table groans at the added weight but holds. That cat of her has no boundaries. He turns his bright, mischievous eyes on their food.
“Ginger. Get.” Elain tells him; Azriel eyes him warily.
By some small act of mercy, the cat decides to listen to Elain, concludes that the food is not worth the trouble. Instead, Ginger locks onto his newest obsession: Azriel. The man seated across from her stills when they make eye contact, and—Azriel looks nervous. He swallows once and goes deathly still, like heroes in movies when they’re hiding from some monster.
Ginger trots across the table, nuzzles at Azriel’s arm. Azriel looks to her for help, for guidance.
“You can shoo him if you want,” Elain tells him, fond annoyance in her voice. “It won’t hurt his feelings.”
Elain’s date looks very inclined to do just that, but Azriel reconsiders, working out some puzzle. He shakes his head. “No, it’s fine.”
She hopes he’s not suffering the cat’s pushiness for her, to win her approval. Gingersnap is well known for taking advantage of even the smallest amount of kindness.
For a little while, Ginger sits on top of the table watching his new friend, but the cat quickly decides to force his way into Azriel’s lap. Again. The poor man looks reluctant at all the feline affection, but he relents, settling one hand onto the cat’s back to please the creature; Elain can hear Ginger’s purrs from where she sits.
Azriel sneezes again.
“Are you alright?” Elain asks, concerned. He’s looking a little bedraggled… and red.
“I’m fine,” Azriel insists, never one to complain. He smiles at her, but she notices that it doesn’t meet his eyes. A sniffle. “Must be something in the air.”
“Okay,” Elain says, but she isn’t sure she believes him.
“Good morning, Azriel,” The doctor says, strolling in with a lazy smile and a clipboard tucked under his arm. “What brings you in today?”
On cue, Azriel sneezes; he’s been trying to resist the need to rub his red, scratchy eyes all day. The feeling is infuriating. The doctor raises a brow, checks his clipboard.
“I’m allergic to cats,” Azriel tells the man. The doctor looks confused, unsure of the relevance of that statement to his visit. Dr. Day isn’t his usual doctor, but that one chose to go on vacation when Azriel needed him most.
“I see,” but his tone told Azriel that he did not, in fact, see.
“My girlfriend owns a cat,” is all Azriel says in response. His voice is hoarse, nose stuffed. Morrigan says he sounds like death. Azriel certainly feels like death.
This time the doctor grins, flashing all his brilliant white teeth. “Oh. Now I see.”
Azriel breaks into a sneezing fit before he can defend himself. His brothers, the bastards, have taken to counting the sneezes as they come. One. Two. Three. Four—his record currently sits at eleven. In a row.
The doctor scribbles something into his notepad, passes it and a tissue box over to Azriel, who accepts it with a scowl. The man looks to his doctor, miserable and desperate for his help. “I haven’t told her yet. She’ll pick the cat,” Azriel tells him morosely. “Little devil got there first.”
“Well,” Dr. Helion Day says openly amused. “Hopefully, this will help. I would hate to see anyone as pretty as you lonely and broken-hearted.”
“Whatcha doing?” Elain sings, coming up from behind Azriel and wrapping her arms around his middle. The man freezes, caught red-handed.
Gingersnap eyes him from his spot on the countertop. Azriel and Ging have been keeping the key to their friendship secret from Elain for a while now. The cat follows him everywhere, to the point where Elain jokes that Azriel’s stolen Ginger from her. Elain is the only one in the apartment who doesn't know about Azriel's little morning ritual.
“Mew,” Ginger takes off, leaving Azriel on his own. Traitor.
Azriel swallows the pill in his mouth, pops the cap back onto the pill bottle. Elain peers around him and sucks in a breath at the sight of the little orange bottle.
“What’s that?” She asks, sound concerned. “You’re not coming down with something, are you?”
Azriel’s girlfriend spins him around, places a hand to his forehead. He grins at her kindness, takes her hands in his. “I’m fine. Promise.”
“But the bottle,” Elain trails off, considering something. “Oh, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have pried.”
It takes Azriel a second to puzzle out what she’s thinking, but then he remembers Elain explaining the situation with her youngest sister, Feyre. The one that can’t seem to stay away from Rhys. Depression. The new medicine was helping; she was getting better, but the road there was hard, would always be tough. But worth it.
“No, El,” he smiles down at her, appreciating her concern and consideration if unwarranted. Elain wears his shirt this morning. It’s quite distracting. “You can know. I don’t want any secrets.”
She looks wary but allows Azriel to tug her close. He gives the little pill bottle a shake, hands it over to her. “Allergy meds. That’s all. I have allergies.”
“To what?” It’s such an innocent question that Azriel has to laugh a little. He’s a fool in love.
“Uh,” Azriel trails off, rubbing the back of his neck. “Cats.”
“Cats?” Elain gasps, mind running a mile a minute. “You’re allergic to—oh my god.”
She smacks his arm, and Azriel frowns. That isn't very nice of her. “That’s why you were so weird when you first started coming over!” She hits his arm again. “Why you wouldn’t stay the night!” Another hit. “Azriel Knight! It’s been months!”
Elain tries to give him another smack. They don’t hurt, but he grabs her hand anyways, uses it to pull her close. She pretends to resist but settles into his arms with a kiss. Azriel folds her in close, rests his head atop hers.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers. “I just—I freaked out.”
Azriel hears her mutter Yeah. You did.
“I didn’t know what you’d say about it,” Azriel tells her. “I just scheduled an appointment at my doctor’s office for the medicine, and it worked, and I just didn’t mention it.”
Elain sighs, “I could’ve helped. God, I’ve let Ginger bug you all this time, and I should’ve been stopping him. I so sorry.”
“Hey, Ging and I are besties now,” Azriel tells her with a smile. “He’s been very helpful in testing out what worked and what didn’t. We think we’ve finally found a winner.”
“Az,” Elain whines.
Before Azriel can say anything else, the distinct sound of something clattering to ground echoes in the apartment. The pill bottle rattles as it rolls away from the counter, and the sound Gingersnap's claws sliding across the floor in pursuit come next. Elain curses the cat's name, chasing after him; Azriel just laughs and enjoys the view of his girlfriend running around in his clothes.
Gingersnap can keep the pills if he wants; Azriel learned to keep a spare bottle a long time ago.