Elain was used to being left behind while the other members of the Inner Circle went off on missions or into battle. Elain was no warrior; this was well known among them all. Oh, she’d had some training; she was a part of the High Lord and Lady’s family, after all. Some fight training was essential when so much of the world wanted your immediate family dead; or worse, captured.
Azriel had ensured she knew enough self-defense to get by, that she knew how to handle a blade as well as she was able when she really had no talent for it. That didn’t mean they wanted her anywhere near sanctioned missions, however. Especially as her powers were already coveted by their enemies.
So Elain waiting in Velaris was nothing unusual. She served her Court and its leaders better there, ensuring that all her visions were taken down and recorded for interpretation later. Ensuring that her life and her power remained safe.
Still, she worried. She worried a lot. How could she not? Her friends and family put themselves at risk – mortal risk – all the time. Elain hated that she herself was too weak to contribute in that way; it was a constant point of contention for her. On the one hand, she knew her presence would likely only be a distraction to them, would be more liable to get them killed. On the other… well, her fae instincts screamed at her to protect what was hers.
Today’s mission in particular gnawed at her stomach. Azriel and Cassian had left that morning, intent on subduing some rogue Illyrian war-bands, while the rest of the Inner Circle were off on a diplomatic mission in the human realms. Elain had been left to watch Velaris; to keep the city running smoothly in their absence. An honor, to be sure, but an empty one.
Even the mountains and mountains of paperwork her sister and brother-in-law had left her weren’t enough to distract her from her worry. She wasn’t too concerned about the meetings in the human realms; it wouldn’t be the first time they’d had peace talks there and, while they were never exactly smooth, they very rarely ended in violence.
The Illyrians, however, that was especially worrying. She knew most would have absolutely no compunction about hurting either Azriel or Cassian; two bastard-born Illyrians most considered unworthy of their wings.
Cauldron, Elain hated that they had to go off on their own.
It was made a thousand times worse when a vision suddenly blind-sided her, hammered its way into her head. Elain fell to the floor with the sheer force of it, with the way it overwhelmed her every thought, screaming at her.
She catalogued each image as they flashed across her eyes.
Cassian. Azriel. The Illyrian camps. A group of captured females. An ambush lying in wait. Azriel setting off a trap when he tried to free the females.
An arrow shot from the trees, meeting its target with horrific accuracy.
Blood. Blood everywhere as a winged body was shot down from the sky, the arrow stuck in a broad chest, too close to the heart. Far too close to the heart.
Azriel again. His broken body splayed on the forest floor.
Blood. Blood everywhere.
Elain came to with a terrified gasp. Azriel was in danger.
By the mother, no, Elain thought desperately.
She forced herself to her feet despite the residual dizziness from her visions. She needed to find a way to stop it. Azriel… he couldn’t be hurt like that. He couldn’t die like that.
Not on her watch. She wouldn’t let him. She wouldn’t.
But how to stop it? He was all the way in the Steppes and Elain had never developed the power to winnow. She cursed under her breath, uncharacteristic of her but Elain hardly cared at that moment, not with the utter futility of it all staring her down.
She couldn’t give into the panic that was threatening to take her over though, not now when she needed to be able to think, to find a solution.
And then it clicked, so obvious she’d nearly overlooked it. But then, she supposed that was Nuala and Cerridwen’s purpose: to be forgetful, to be overlooked. They were sure to have some way to get in contact with Azriel, however; they were some of his most trusted spies, after all.
Elain found herself running down to the kitchen, hoping to find one of her friends there. As luck would have it, she practically crashed into Nuala, who was just exiting the kitchen upon her arrival.
“Azriel’s in danger,” Elain immediately blurted, barely sparing the time to right herself. “I’ve seen it.”
Nuala, for her part, didn’t make the mistake of not believing Elain, instead asking for every little detail. As soon as Elain was done talking, the so-called lesser faerie disappeared into shadow like she was borne from it.
The next ten minutes were probably the longest of Elain’s entire life, mortal and immortal. Her entire stomach churned with worry, anxiety eating away at her. The vision played over and over again in her mind, plaguing her thoughts.
Cauldron, what if Nuala couldn’t get to Azriel in time? What if she did but the vision’s events happened anyways?
What if… what if Azriel’s injuries would be fatal?
Sweet mother, Elain could barely bear the mere thought of that, let alone the reality. Please, she prayed to whatever deity might listen, please let him live. Let him live.
Finally, finally, Nuala returned, saying only that Azriel and Cassian had been warned, and that all they could do now was wait for them. She tried to distract Elain in the meantime, coaxing her into the very same kitchen that had brought her so much comfort in the first months of her immortal life. But Elain could not be swayed away from her thoughts of Azriel.
(A part of her felt guilty for that. Guilty because Azriel wasn’t the only one on this mission; Cassian was too. Cassian, who had welcomed her into his family with open arms and a huge smile. Cassian, who had become a brother to her. But still, it was the quieter of the two Illyrians that stayed on Elain’s mind.)
(Azriel… Stars, Azriel. Elain sometimes felt that words weren’t enough to describe him. He might live this immortal life in shadow, but the world would truly be a darker place without him in it.)
Hours later, Elain heard the telltale sound of two huge Illyrian males landing on the rooftop. She abandoned the work she’d been trying to distract herself with, running up the stairs and outside with all the speed she could muster.
The sight of Azriel standing there – alive – sent her heart racing with sheer relief. She found herself sprinting towards him, uncaring of the impropriety of it all.
“Azriel!” she exclaimed, flinging her arms around his neck, burying her head into his crook of his shoulder. He smelled of sweat and blood and war but it was still Azriel. Her Azriel, her best friend in this life. “You’re alive,” she whispered. “Thank the Cauldron.”
He hugged her back readily, arms banding around her waist with such strength that she should have felt crushed by him. But she didn’t. Couldn’t. Because this was Azriel.
“Yes, I am,” he replied, lips pressed against the top of her head as he spoke. “Thanks to you. Smart of you to find Nuala to bring me the message.”
Elain pulled back from him then, shocked to find that she’d shed a few tears in her relief. She wiped them away, pulled herself together. “Yes, well,” she said, unsure of what else she could possibly say to that, unused to taking compliments.
She allowed herself a brief moment to drink him in, however, standing there in front of her and not laying slain like he had in her vision. He was standing. Thank the mother and the Cauldron and all those holy things.
And then, suddenly, without warning, anger rushed through her. It was the anger of extreme worry, red-hot and all-consuming. Irrational. But she couldn’t help it.
“I wouldn’t have had to do any of that if you been more careful!” Elain found herself saying, voice rising. “How could you be so reckless?”
Azriel’s brows furrowed. “Reckless? There were innocents in danger, Elain.”
“I know that. It doesn’t mean you should plan to sacrifice yourself just like that!” She poked him in the chest with a single finger, hard.
He rubbed at the spot, looking at her with confusion. “If not me, then who?” he asked, as if that was an acceptable response.
(It wasn’t. Never would be, in Elain’s eyes. Nothing was worth Azriel’s sacrifice. Nothing. Not even her own soul.)
“I don’t know! I don’t. But you could have planned it better, you could have made sure you didn’t lose your life when it could have been avoided.”
He tapped her temple lightly, fingers warm against her skin. “That’s what I have you for,” Azriel finally said with a small smile, obviously trying to lighten the mood.
Elain slumped a little, anger giving way to the fear that had caused it in the first place. “But what if I hadn’t seen? What if– What if I hadn’t been able to get you the message?” What if you had died anyways?
Azriel dropped his hand to take hers. “Elain. I’m fine. I swear it. It’s just a scratch.”
Her eyes widened. “A scratch? What? Where?”
He gestured to his right leg, where there was a deep cut in the meat of his thigh, blood disguised by the darkness of his Illyrian leathers; it looked like an arrow wound. Elain’s anger immediately turned inwards; how hadn’t she noticed that? Her fingers fluttered over the injury, like she wanted to heal it with a simple touch. She stopped herself just in time from actually making contact though; Cauldron, what if she hurt him more?
Elain looked back at Azriel, finding his eyes already on her, dark with something she didn’t recognize. (When did he get so close?)
“You’re hurt,” she whispered, voice tremulous. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize… I can’t believe just ran at you.” Stupid, stupid Elain.
But Azriel shook his head, suppressing a smile, eyes full of incredible fondness. “It’ll heal. And I liked the greeting.”
A flush rose on Elain’s cheeks. She looked down at their linked hands, played idly with Azriel’s fingers. “I wish… I wish you wouldn’t get hurt all the time. I know it’s for a good cause, I know it’s for a purpose, but I– I can’t–” she trailed off, words choking her.
Azriel went completely still in front of her, like he was holding his breath. “You can’t what?”
She flicked her eyes back up to his hazel ones; the very same that always seemed to be able to see through to her soul.
“I can’t stand to see you hurt,” she admitted. It was more than just that, she knew. But she wasn’t quite ready to say the rest out loud. Not yet.
“Elain,” he said, like her name held all the answers in the world.
“Azriel, I–” she shook her head suddenly; mother, but where were the words? In lieu of something to say, Elain found herself lifting his scarred hand, pressing a kiss to his palm. She peered up at him shyly, found that he looked shocked, this tips of ears slightly red. “Please. Just be more careful? I– There are people here who care about you.”
He seemed to consider something, watching her with an inscrutable expression. “Like you?”
Elain couldn’t deny it. Didn’t want to. “Yes, like me.”
A smile, small but utterly beautiful. “In that case… can I try something?”
The deep gruffness of Azriel’s voice sent a shiver through Elain’s spine, his closeness making her heart flutter almost uncomfortably. Yet Azriel tugged her closer, his free hand coming up to frame her face, to tilt it upwards. She nodded then, words caught in her throat.
And then he kissed her, surprising her utterly. It was no soft, chaste thing either, like she might have expected from him. No, this was full of burning passion, as red-hot as her anger had been earlier. It was the kind of kiss that forced gasps out of her, that left her breathless. A clash of tongues and teeth and pure want.
When he tried to pull back – probably to bring sense back to them – Elain pushed herself to her tiptoes, chased his lips with hers. She tightened the fingers she had in his hair (how did that happen?), not allowing him any further from her. That was clearly enough encouragement for Azriel, who wrapped her tighter in his embrace, surrounding her completely.
Elain loved it. Couldn’t get enough. Her body sung for more, her mind hazy with it. And her heart. Well, her heart was full to the brim of a feeling she didn’t want to name just yet.
And then, like a splash of ice-cold water, Cassian’s voice interrupted them. “Alright, lovers, as much as I’m happy for you both – especially for Az here, who really needs to loosen up – he does still need to see the healers,” he said loudly, clearly laughing at them.
Elain flew back from Azriel, cheeks burning with embarrassment. Stars, she’d completely forgotten that Cassian was right too, hovering at the edge of her vision.
Even worse, she’d forgotten that Azriel was still wounded.
She eyed his injury now, safely a few steps away from. “I’m so sorry,” she babbled, “I didn’t hurt you more, did I?”
Azriel still wore that small smile of his, full of delighted fondness. He was probably a bit delirious from all the blood loss, she thought. Cauldron, but Elain could be so stupid.
But Azriel stopped that path of thought before it could get too far, shouldering past Cassian to get closer to her again.
Elain looked up at him, wide-eyed, suddenly overwhelmed by him, how big he was next to her. He reached out to tuck some loose hair behind her ear, cupping her cheek gently. The softness of his actions sent her heart aflutter, made her feel even more flushed than when he had been kissing her.
“I’ll be more careful,” he promised. He leaned in once more, pressed his lips against her forehead briefly, an indescribably sweet gesture. His voice was low, a whisper only for her ears. “Especially if I have you waiting for me.”
With that, he grinned at her – a full, wide grin – and pulled away, heading back to where Cassian was watching them both with a knowing smirk.
“Not a word,” Azriel commanded of his brother.
Cassian’s smirk only widened. “I didn’t say anything.”
“Your face says it all,” Azriel grumbled, protesting as Cassian pulled one of his arms over his shoulders.
“I’ll bring him back in good health,” Cassian called back to Elain, that wolf’s grin still in place. “Can’t have him sweeping you off your feet with an injured leg, now can we?”
Elain spluttered, wanting to say something about not being swept anywhere, but Cassian never gave her the chance, only winking before he forced Azriel to walk away, leading him to the healer’s.
It took Elain a long, long moment to gather herself and go back inside. And even when she did, she was sure her face looked like it was on fire. But, for once, she found she couldn’t care much about her embarrassment, not with how her cheeks hurt from all the smiling. Besides, her thoughts were more caught up on what might have happened if Cassian hadn’t been there… if Azriel hadn’t been injured at all.
Well. Maybe next time. Maybe they’d have a hundred more opportunities. Maybe a thousand more.
Elain certainly hoped so.