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.”
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 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.”
Elain bit her lip and then smiled sheepishly. “It’s for the headaches everyone always gives you. Since you rub your temples so often.”
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.
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.
He’d had enough.
Enough of the coldness, the sharpness. Enough of the sword-straight spine and razor-sharp stare that had only honed itself these months.
Cassian could barely hear over the roaring in his head as he charged into the snowy night. Could barely register moving aside his High Lady to get to the front door. To get to Nesta.
She’d already made it to the gate, walking with that unfaltering grace despite the icy ground. Her collection of books tucked under an arm.
It was only when Cassian reached her that he realized he had nothing to say. Nothing to say that wouldn’t make her laugh in his face.
“I’ll walk you home,” was all that came out instead.
Nesta paused just past the low iron gate, her face cold and pale as moonlight.
Beautiful. Even with the weight loss, she was as beautiful standing in the snow as she’d been the first time he’d laid eyes on her in her father’s house.
And infinitely more deadly. In so many ways.
She looked him over. “I’m fine.”
“It’s a long walk, and it’s late.”
And you didn’t say one gods-damned word to me the entire night.
Not that he’d said a word to her.
She’d made it clear enough in those initial days after that last battle that she wanted nothing to do with him. With any of them.
He understood. He really did. It had taken him months—years—after his first battles to readjust. To cope. Hell, he was still reeling from what had happened in that final battle with Hybern, too.
Nesta held her ground, proud as any Illyrian. More vicious, too. “Go back into the house.”
Cassian gave her a crooked grin, one he knew sent that temper of hers boiling. “I think I need some fresh air, anyway.”
She rolled her eyes and launched into a walk. He wasn’t stupid enough to offer to carry her books.
Instead, he easily kept pace, an eye out for any treacherous patches of ice on the cobblestones. They’d barely survived Hybern. He didn’t need her snapping her neck on the street.
Nesta lasted all of a block, the green-roofed houses merry and still full of song and laughter, before she halted. Whirled on him.
“Go back to the house.”
“I will,” he said, flashing a grin again. “After I drop you off at your front door.”
At that piece-of-shit apartment she insisted on living in. Across the city.
Nesta’s eyes—the same as Feyre’s and yet wholly different, sharp and cold as steel—went to his hands. What was in them. “What is that.”
Another grin as he lifted the small, wrapped parcel. “Your Solstice present.”
“I don’t want one.”