فصل 20

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CHAPTER

20

Feyre

Snow clung to Nesta’s hair as we stared at each other across the threshold.

Pink tinged her cheeks from the frigid night, but her face remained solemn. Cold as the snow-dusted cobblestones.

I opened the door a bit wider. “We’re in the sitting room.”

“I saw.”

Conversation, tentative and halting, carried to the foyer. No doubt a noble attempt by everyone to give us some privacy and sense of normalcy.

When Nesta remained on the doorstep, I extended a hand toward her. “Here—I’ll take your coat.”

I tried not to hold my breath as she glanced past me, into the house. As if weighing whether to take that step over the threshold.

From the edge of my vision, purple and gold flashed—Elain. “You’ll fall ill if you just stand there in the cold,” she tutted to Nesta, smiling broadly. “Come sit with me by the fire.”

Nesta’s blue-gray eyes slid to mine. Wary. Assessing.

I held my ground. Held that door open.

Without a word, my sister crossed the threshold.

It was the matter of a moment to remove her coat, scarf, and gloves to reveal one of those simple yet elegant gowns she favored. She’d opted for a slate gray. No jewelry. Certainly no presents, but at least she’d come.

Elain linked elbows to lead Nesta into the room, and I followed, watching the group beyond as they paused.

Watching Cassian especially, now standing with Az at the fire.

He was the portrait of relaxed, an arm braced against the carved mantel, his wings tucked in loosely, a faint grin on his face and a glass of wine in his hand. He slid his hazel eyes toward my sister without him moving an inch.

Elain had plastered a smile onto her face as she led Nesta not toward the fire as she’d promised, but the liquor cabinet.

“Don’t take her to the wine—take her to the food,” Amren called to Elain from her perch on the armchair as she slid the pearl earrings Az had given her into her lobes. “I can see her bony ass even through that dress.”

Nesta halted halfway across the room, spine stiff. Cassian went still as death.

Elain paused beside our sister, that plastered-on smile faltering.

Amren just smirked at Nesta. “Happy Solstice, girl.”

Nesta stared at Amren—until a ghost of a smile curved her lips. “Pretty earrings.”

I felt, more than saw, the room relax slightly.

Elain said brightly, “We were just getting to presents.”

It occurred to me only when she said the words that none of the gifts in this room had Nesta’s name on them.

“We haven’t eaten yet,” I supplied, lingering in the threshold between the sitting room and foyer. “But if you’re hungry, we can get you a plate—”

Nesta accepted the glass of wine Elain pressed into her hand. I didn’t fail to note that when Elain turned again to the liquor cabinet, she poured a finger of amber-colored liquor into a glass and knocked back the contents with a grimace before facing Nesta again.

A soft snort from Amren at that, missing nothing.

But Nesta’s attention had gone to the birthday cake still sitting on the table, its various tiers delved into many times over.

Her eyes lifted to mine in the silence. “Happy birthday.”

I offered a nod of thanks. “Elain made the cake,” I offered somewhat uselessly.

Nesta only nodded before heading for a chair near the back of the room, by one of the bookcases. “You can return to your presents,” she said softly, but not weakly, as she sat.

Elain rushed toward a box near the front of the pile. “This one’s for you,” she declared to our sister.

I threw Rhys a pleading glance. Please start talking again. Please.

Some of the light had vanished from his violet eyes as he studied Nesta while she drank from her glass. He didn’t respond down the bond, but instead said to Varian, “Does Tarquin host a formal party for the Summer Solstice, or does he have a more casual gathering?”

The Prince of Adriata didn’t miss a beat, and launched into a perhaps unnecessarily detailed description of the Summer Court’s celebrations. I’d thank him for it later.

Elain had reached Nesta by then, offering her what seemed to be a heavy, paper-wrapped box.

By the windows, Mor sprang into motion, handing Azriel his gift.

Torn between watching the two, I remained in the doorway.

Azriel’s composure didn’t so much as falter as he opened her present: a set of embroidered blue towels—with his initials on them. Bright blue.

I had to look away to keep from laughing. Az, to his credit, gave Mor a smile of thanks, a blush creeping over his cheeks, his hazel eyes fixed on her. I looked away at the heat, the yearning that filled them.

But Mor waved him off and moved to pass Cassian his gift; but the warrior didn’t take it. Or take his eyes off Nesta as she undid the brown paper wrapping on the box and revealed a set of five novels in a leather box. She read the titles, then lifted her head to Elain.

Elain smiled down at her. “I went into that bookshop. You know the one by the theater? I asked them for recommendations, and the woman—female, I mean … She said this author’s books were her favorite.”

I inched close enough to read one of the titles. Romance, from the sound of it.

Nesta pulled out one of the books and fanned through the pages. “Thank you.”

The words were stiff—gravelly.

Cassian at last turned to Mor, tearing open her present with a disregard for the fine wrapping. He laughed at whatever was inside the box. “Just what I always wanted.” He held up a pair of what seemed to be red silk undershorts. The perfect match to her negligee.

With Nesta pointedly preoccupied with flipping through her new books, I moved to the presents I’d wrapped yesterday.

For Amren: a specially designed folding carrier for her puzzles. So she didn’t need to leave them at home if she were to visit sunnier, warmer lands. This earned me both an eye roll and a smile of appreciation. The ruby-and-silver brooch, shaped like a pair of feathered wings, earned me a rare peck on the cheek.

For Elain: a pale blue cloak with armholes, perfect for gardening in the chillier months.

And for Cassian, Azriel, and Mor …

I grunted as I hauled over the three wrapped paintings. Then waited in foot-shifting silence while they opened them.

While they beheld what was inside and smiled.

I hadn’t any idea what to get them, other than this. The pieces I’d worked on recently—glimpses of their stories.

None of them explained what the paintings meant, what they beheld. But each of them kissed me on the cheek in thanks.

Before I could hand Rhys his present, I found a heap of them in my lap.

From Amren: an illuminated manuscript, ancient and beautiful. From Azriel: rare, vibrant paint from the continent. From Cassian: a proper leather sheath for a blade, to be set down the groove of my spine like a true Illyrian warrior. From Elain: fine brushes monogrammed with my initials and the Night Court insignia on the handles. And from Mor: a pair of fleece-lined slippers. Bright pink, fleece-lined slippers.

Nothing from Nesta, but I didn’t care. Not one bit.

The others passed around their gifts, and I finally found a moment to haul the last painting over to Rhys. He’d lingered by the bay window, quiet and smiling. Last year had been his first Solstice since Amarantha—this year, his second. I didn’t want to know what it had been like, what she’d done to him, during those forty-nine Solstices he’d missed.

Rhys opened my present carefully, lifting the painting so the others wouldn’t see it.

I watched his eyes rove over what was on it. Watched his throat bob.

“Tell me that’s not your new pet,” Cassian said, having snuck behind me to peer at it.

I shoved him away. “Snoop.”

Rhys’s face remained solemn, his eyes star-bright as they met mine. “Thank you.”

The others continued on a tad more loudly—to give us privacy in that crowded room.

“I have no idea where you might hang it,” I said, “but I wanted you to have it.”

To see.

For on that painting, I’d shown him what I had not revealed to anyone. What the Ouroboros had revealed to me: the creature inside myself, the creature full of hate and regret and love and sacrifice, the creature that could be cruel and brave, sorrowful and joyous.

I gave him me—as no one but him would ever see me. No one but him would ever understand.

“It’s beautiful,” he said, voice still hoarse.

I blinked away the tears that threatened at those words and leaned into the kiss he pressed to my mouth. You are beautiful, he whispered down the bond.

So are you.

I know.

I laughed, pulling away. Prick.

There were only a few presents left—Lucien’s. I opened mine to find a gift for me and my mate: three bottles of fine liquor. You’ll need it, was all the note said.

I handed Elain the small box with her name on it. Her smile faded as she opened it.

“Enchanted gloves,” she read from the card. “That won’t tear or become too sweaty while gardening.” She set aside the box without looking at it for longer than a moment. And I wondered if she preferred to have torn and sweaty hands, if the dirt and cuts were proof of her labor. Her joy.

Amren squealed—actually squealed—with delight when she beheld Rhys’s present. The jewels glittering inside the multiple boxes. But her delight turned quieter, more tender when she opened Varian’s gift. She didn’t show any of us what was inside the small box before offering him a small, private smile.

There was a tiny box left on the table by the window—a box that Mor lifted, squinted at the name tag, and said, “Az, this one’s for you.”

The shadowsinger’s brows lifted, but his scarred hand extended to take the present.

Elain turned from where she’d been speaking to Nesta. “Oh, that’s from me.”

Azriel’s face didn’t so much as shift at the words. Not even a smile as he opened the present and revealed—

“I had Madja make it for me,” Elain explained. Azriel’s brows narrowed at the mention of the family’s preferred healer. “It’s a powder to mix in with any drink.”

Silence.

Elain bit her lip and then smiled sheepishly. “It’s for the headaches everyone always gives you. Since you rub your temples so often.”

Silence again.

Then Azriel tipped his head back and laughed.

I’d never heard such a sound, deep and joyous. Cassian and Rhys joined him, the former grabbing the glass bottle from Azriel’s hand and examining it. “Brilliant,” Cassian said.

Elain smiled again, ducking her head.

Azriel mastered himself enough to say, “Thank you.” I’d never seen his hazel eyes so bright, the hues of green amid the brown and gray like veins of emerald. “This will be invaluable.”

“Prick,” Cassian said, but laughed again.

Nesta watched warily from her chair, Elain’s present—her only present—in her lap. Her spine stiffened slightly. Not at the words, but at Elain, laughing with them. With us.

As if Nesta were looking at us through some sort of window. As if she were still standing out in the front yard, watching us in the house.

I forced myself to smile, though. To laugh with them.

I had a feeling Cassian was doing the same.

The night was a blur of laughter and drinking, even with Nesta sitting in near-silence at the packed dinner table.

It was only when the clock chimed two that the yawns began to appear. Amren and Varian were the first to leave, the latter bearing all of her presents in his arms, the former nestled in the fine ermine coat that he’d given her—a second gift to whatever one he’d put in that small box.

Settled again in the sitting room, Nesta got to her feet half an hour later. She quietly bid Elain good night, dropping a kiss to the top of her hair, and drifted for the front door.

Cassian, nestled with Mor, Rhys, and Azriel on the couch, didn’t so much as move.

But I did, rising from my own chair to follow Nesta to where she was donning her layers at the front door. I waited until she’d entered the antechamber before extending my hand.

“Here.”

Nesta half turned toward me, focus darting to what was in my hand. The small slip of paper.

The banker’s note for her rent. And then some.

“As promised,” I said.

For a moment, I prayed she wouldn’t take it. That she would tell me to tear it up.

But Nesta’s lips only tightened, her fingers unwavering as she took the money.

As she turned her back on me and walked out the front door, into the freezing darkness beyond.

I remained in the chilly antechamber, hand still outstretched, the phantom dryness of that check lingering on my fingers.

The floorboards thudded behind me, and then I was being gently but forcibly moved to the side. It happened so fast I barely had time to realize that Cassian had gone storming past—right out the front door.

To my sister.

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