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To Mate a Faerie

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Death Herself gazed out over the city, and sipped her tea.

There were rustlings and murmurings in the halls behind her, concerned whispers and the occasional hissed question, but she ignored it all. Let them wonder, she decided.

She had emerged from the Cauldron grasping its deadly power between her teeth, had claimed it and wielded it, had blasted their enemies into smithereens. Now it settled uneasily inside her, roiling, questioning, uncurling from her fingertips as tiny licks of silver fire. The balcony beneath her feet trembled slightly, as though recoiling from her, and she sighed, closing her fist shut, extinguishing the magic for the moment.

Such power was not meant for the light of day, for a sunny afternoon overlooking a bustling seaport. Her fire was for the battlefield and the dungeon, for soldiers and giants, for beasts and monsters, not for the seaside or cafes and marketplaces, or laughing children in the park. So she stayed up on the balcony, gazing at the life far below, and did not go down.

She wondered whether she could put her death power away, soothe it to slumber with tea or stronger liquor, or whether it would consume her, carve away at her heart and bones until she was nothing but silver embers.

Nesta would accept that fate, be glad of it, for now her work was done. Her sisters were free.

She had barely recognized Elain at the castle, magnificent and glowing, fierce as a thunderstorm yet gentle as a flower. The sweet human girl that had fretted over disobeying her husband’s orders, who had lingered outside rooms he’d forbidden her from, now commanded others, radiated power. It was the opposite of Nesta’s power, for Elain was brimming with vigor and creation, trailing new growth wherever she walked, as well as grateful followers, faerie and human, who were eager to do her bidding. High Lady, the faeries called her, wondering at how the well the magic had chosen, how wise the Cauldron and the Mother had been.

Elain had always been wise, had faced life’s adversities with hope and sweetness when her sisters had been bitter and jaded. She had never fallen prey to the despair that had left Nesta feeling hollow and brittle, even as she had guarded Elain’s innocence and happiness. Now Elain could guard herself, her fireling, and all her folk, through the magic that connected her to her lands. She had her life’s work, a realm to rule, and no more need of Nesta’s stern protection.

“You must come and stay,” Elain had offered, throwing her arms around Nesta with startling strength. “Walk the gardens, swim in the Pool of Starlight. The land has suffered, and we’ve got work to do to help it. But when it’s all put to right, and healed, we’ll have a grand celebration.”

And Nesta had agreed, though she saw how most folk averted their eyes from her, if not outright cowering away. She wondered how the sweet Spring folk would feel, having Death Herself in their midst, at their celebration. They were uncomfortable enough with Feyre now, and she had once lived among them, revered as their Cursebreaker. Feyre had left Spring for the Night Court, to mate their ancient enemy. And although they did not begrudge her the right to live where she wished, did not criticize her for not staying with Tamlin, they did resent that she had abandoned them to the former High Lord’s unhinged rages.

Feyre’s laughter floated out to the balcony towards her, along with her new High Lord’s filthy chuckling. The two were insufferably flirty, always exchanging sultry glances and tart teasing comments, and sat draped over one another at every opportunity. He was her mate, her Cauldron-granted partner, far more to her than a mere husband ever could have been. Nesta had snorted at the very idea, but had seen how they adored each other, and that made the idea a little less jarring. Nesta had never seen Feyre so free and easy, even in the years before they’d lost their fortune, had always thought Feyre too fierce and hard to be able to play. Whatever else the arrogant High Lord might have done, Nesta could be grateful for that.

Feyre, too, would be a High Lady, ruling at her new High Lord’s side. Her powers were scattered, a mosaic of magic, and she could have had her choice of courts to live in, but she had chosen the Night Court as her home, its ruling faeries as her new family. Nesta had never felt at all close to her sister, had both misunderstood her and understood her far too well, and she tried not to resent it that Feyre had replaced her.

An endless life stretched before Nesta now, a life beyond the Wall she’d always feared and avoided. As much as she hated the fae, or at least the idea of them, she could not go back to the human lands. Even if her own manor hadn’t been plundered and burned, even if the townsfolk hadn’t reviled her, she had no purpose there anyway, other than protecting and sustaining the staff who had once served her sister, who were all far happier to be back with Elain, working in the Spring Court’s manor and gardens.

Nesta’s fingers itched, and she flexed them, examining each one for any sign of damage. She didn’t understand how her power worked, how it could render giants into dust on the wind but not so much as singe her own fingertips. Even the silver-eyed shrew that Feyre called a friend couldn’t tell Nesta much, other than that she had been Made by the Cauldron, that it gave her unnatural strength and powers, and that she and her sisters were unique in this world, as different from faeries as the faeries were from humans.

It was nothing new, being different, but Nesta had always known herself for who and what she was. She was not soft and sweet like Elain, nor energetic and adaptable like Feyre, but hard and unyielding, like steel, like iron. She was the lady of the estate, but no one’s meek wife or hostess. She would have lived out her days in that insufferable village, ignoring the ignorant folk who talked ill of her and her family, or baring her teeth at them, frightening them away.

But now she was new, faerie but not just faerie, burdened with an ancient power that no one understood. She welcomed it, for it had saved them all — but it weighed on her heavily, all the same.

“Hello, Nesta.”

She did not turn around, for she knew very well it was him, the handsome winged warrior who had found her, lost and frantic, in the forests of Spring. She could not explain how she had felt his presence among the trees, how she knew he was there to find her and help her. And she had known he was with her now, on the balcony, whether due to his heavy footsteps, or musky scent, or some strange pull she felt towards him.

She acknowledged the warrior with a tilt of her head, but stayed facing out towards the city, not reacting at all as he stepped closer behind her.

“I was going to head down into the city center, run a few errands,” he said, all too casually. “If you wanted to get out for a while, see Velaris —“

“No thank you,” she said primly, cutting off his bumbling attempts to be welcoming, solicitous. The city was far too loud, too crowded, overstimulating in comparison to her little human village. And to venture out would require flying, and Nesta had had enough of that for one immortal lifetime.

“Come on, Nes,” the warrior said, with irritating good humor. “You haven’t left the House for weeks. Don’t you want to —“

“No,” she said curtly. “And don’t call me that.”

She would not surrender herself to being picked up and carried. She had consented to it only twice, once when she was desperate to rescue Elain, and once to be brought to this high fortress that was her current residence. Although her escort had been careful not to jostle her, or make her motion-sick, she was still loath to experience it again. It didn’t matter how gentle he had been, how respectful — it was still his arms around her back and legs, her body pressing into him, their faces close together. Flying was far too personal, too overwhelmingly familiar, too vulnerable a position for her to safely be in. How would he feel, she wondered, if he could go nowhere, except if he was scooped up and lifted like a newborn baby?

The warrior took another step closer, enough so that the warmth of him radiated at her back, and though part of her settled at his presence, part of her bristled at the presumption. “Nes-ta,” he drawled, dragging her name out. “Don’t you tire of standing out here, day in and day out? Come fly with me.”

“Why?” she snapped, finally turning towards him, and oh, she wished she hadn’t.

He stood next to her, toweringly tall, all hard muscle and leather armor, his hazel eyes mirroring the red jewels glinting with some inner light. His power, she supposed, for she’d seen him in battle, fighting with maddening speed and skill and strength, that red light pulsing outwards, shielding and blasting and slicing through enemies. He had been a sight to behold, majestic, distracting.

She had lost it the moment that he was captured, had screamed as the soldiers shoved arrows into his wings, wrestled him, hurt him. She would have carved them all up, if her puny human strength had allowed it. Now, at least, she could deal with them properly, for one blast of her power would utterly destroy them. No one ever need harm any of her people again.

He’s not mine, she scolded herself, and almost believed it.

“Because you’re retreating,” he said quietly, leaning his forearms on the railing. “Folding into yourself. Disappearing.” He gestured out towards the mountains, the valley of light and vibrant color nestled among them. “There’s a world out there you haven't seen yet. Hell, there’s dozens of rooms, whole floors of the House, you haven’t even visited.”

“How do you know what I do,” she huffed, though she probably didn’t want to know the answer.

“I know, Nes. Nesta,” he corrected himself, with exaggerated politeness. But then he huffed a soft sigh, leaning forward further, so that they were exactly at eye level. “I know what it’s like to come home from a battle, to feel like you don’t fit anywhere, like regular life is out of reach.”

Nesta blinked at that, at the idea that he might understand her perspective, but protested, “You chose to be a warrior.”

The general snorted. “I’m Illyrian. I was never going to be anything else.”

“I don’t know what that is.” It pained her to admit that she didn’t know, though she said it almost like an accusation. Prythian was a completely foreign world, even without its magic to reckon with. Nesta had had no idea that there were different kinds of faeries, beyond the monsters that the old tales had warned of. Illyrian, lesser faerie, the names of the courts — it all meant nothing to her. I suppose I have all eternity to learn. The prospect was exhausting, just thinking about it.

“We’re bred to be soldiers. Powerful, brutal, and expendable,” the warrior clarified, his eyes darkening.

Bred for battle, and for death. Nesta flexed and bent her fingers, her power seeping through her blood. She could say the same of herself, now.

The warrior was looking down at her fingers, and she self-consciously folded her hands, deliberately hiding the movement from his view. It irritated her that he seemed to understand what she was doing, what it felt like to have this power roiling inside her.

“You should get siphons,” he said, tapping the red jewel on his wrist. “They channel power.”

“And you think I have power?” she said archly, before she remembered that it would have been more dignified to just not respond at all.

“I know you do, Nesta. I can feel it.” He took a step closer, and she rooted in place, determined not to step back, not to allow herself to be intimidated in any way. “I think it’s always just under the surface with you, ready to rattle loose and unleash. You need an outlet.”

“Like what?” Nesta suppressed the urge to roll her eyes. “Shopping for trinkets? Strolling along the waterfront?”

“Learning to fight,” he said. “Learning to channel your magic. It’s not the Illyrian killing power, but it’s close enough. I could show you how I handle my power, see if it’s similar.”

“I know how to fight,” Nesta said tightly.

“You know how to sneak up on enemies and stab them in the jugular,” he conceded. “But that was when you were mortal. They had no idea who you were, and underestimated you. No one will be making that mistake again.”

“No?” She turned to face him fully, arms folded defensively across her chest. “Will they all fear me, now?”

“Do you want them to?”

Nesta considered this. “If they would do me or my sisters harm? Then yes.”

The general’s lips curved up into a roguish smile. “Good.” His eyes dipped slightly, then shot back up to hers, as though he were reining in the impulse to gaze at her more closely. “You’d look magnificent in Illyrian leathers.”

Nesta’s arms tightened, as though she could shield herself from view that way. His armor was form-fitting, let her see exactly how substantial and defined his muscles were, and the thought of her body on display like that — well, it was downright unladylike, an affront to her human upbringing. “I can kill just as well in a dress,” was all she said.

His grin grew wider. “And you’d look damn good doing it.”

Nesta’s face flushed, despite her resolve not to rise to such provocations. These faeries were so forward, so blunt.

“Cass? Are you coming?” came Mor’s voice from down the hall.

Nesta tried not to scowl. She had wanted to be alone, had wanted quiet and peace, but now that he was here, talking to her, she was annoyed that he was getting called away. He always seemed to get called away, and often by the perky blond female who did not have designs on him, but sometimes acted like she did.

But Cassian threw out over his shoulder, “I’ll meet up with you later,” and turned back to Nesta.

“You should go with your friends,” Nesta said. If he was staying on the balcony with her out of pity —

“I am with my friends,” Cassian said. “One of them, anyway.”

“Are we friends, then?” Nesta asked.

“Yes.” Cassian’s hazel eyes twinkled. “For a start.”

Nesta scanned his face for any sign of teasing, of patronizing, of pity. But there was none of that, just an open, earnest, hopeful expression. He was looking at her, seeing her, utterly unfazed by who she was, what she was. But she said, a bit sharply, “You’re not just being nice to me because I’m your High Lady’s sister?”

He looked almost offended. “Is that the only reason someone would want to be nice to you? Because of who your sister is?”

Nesta shrugged one shoulder. “That, or I can kill people in a dress.”

Cassian laughed. It was a hearty, rich, almost sultry laugh that vibrated right through her. “Now that is a very good reason to be nice to you.” He took another step closer, and the chill mountain air suddenly seemed very warm, almost toasty. “But I can think of many, many others.”

“Like what?” she challenged, swallowing thickly as she looked up at him. He was so near to her now that she was finding it hard to concentrate on the conversation.

“Like the fact that you were willing to do anything to save your sisters,” he said. “You were so brave, and fierce. You’re one of us, Nes. Nesta,” he corrected himself, seeing her look of irritation.

“Your friends don’t think so,” she blurted, then wished she hadn’t.

The House of Wind was not as big as they all liked to think, and it was far too easy to overhear what others were saying, whether about Nesta or any other topic. She was not eavesdropping, not listening on purpose, but either her new fae hearing was almost too good, or her sister’s friends were careless. Or they wanted her to know what they thought of her.

Your sister is… interesting.

It wouldn’t kill her to try a little.

Why does she have to be so gods-damned difficult?

Nesta was difficult. She knew it. They all did. There was no point in denying it. But Mor, Amren, Cassian, Rhys, her sister, even — they were difficult too, and felt well entitled to it.

It’s their court - I just live in it. She would always be an outsider, a guest, expected to conform to their wishes, stay grateful that they had taken her in, even if she had killed the Hybern royals, and the Attor, and the giant.

Elain had taken Nesta aside, counseled her on how to manage them. “I usually just paste on a bland smile, pretend I don’t know what they’re talking about,” she’d admitted cheerfully. “And I kill them with kindness, flatter and agree with them, and then I do what I want anyway.”

But Nesta could never pull off that act, nor did she have the patience for it. She would rather be seen as difficult than flatter their egos, then sneak around later. Nesta was Death Herself, not a fawning courtier or scheming diplomat, and wouldn’t let them forget it.

If she often felt lonely, isolated, misunderstood, it was just as well. She might be living in a brand new place, in a brand new body, but at least that felt familiar.

Cassian’s smile slipped. “It’s still early days yet,” he said, a not-quite apology. “Once you get to know everybody better —“

“You and I both know that isn’t happening,” Nesta said icily. Really, why was he bothering to even talk to her? He might push back against Amren — she had seen him do that, as though making sport of it — but would acquiesce to whatever Mor or Rhys said, even if he thought differently.

Cassian already knew all about Nesta anyway, from what Feyre had told him. He had already heard all about Nesta’s family, childhood, and bout with poverty, and firmly believed Feyre’s version of events. Nesta had done nothing to help, had been difficult all those long years at the cottage, when it had been all she could do to keep herself from shattering, from wandering out into the cold dark forest one night and just not coming back. She’d been bitter and angry, verbally abusive like their mother, spewing all the worst insults that she’d received back at Feyre and Elain and her father. Elain had simply ignored them, understanding on a deep level that Nesta was struggling, and her father had been too ill or oblivious to remember.

But not Feyre. Feyre had taken those awful words to heart, had written off Nesta as irretrievably nasty and sour. And maybe she was. Maybe losing her mother had broken her, and losing her status and prospects in life had crumbled the broken bits to ashes.

Would she be expected to spend all eternity making those three years up to Feyre? Would any amount of penance earn her sister’s forgiveness? Feyre had forgiven her High Lord the terrible things he’d done, though Nesta couldn’t understand it. She had not forgiven Rhysand for what he’d done to Feyre, had wanted to blast him with her silver fire when she’d found out how he’d twisted a broken bone, and drugged Feyre for months, and called her mortal trash.

But this was Rhysand’s court, and not Nesta’s, so those things were all forgotten.

“Azriel is the only one who shows me any kindness,” Nesta said. The Shadowsinger was the closest thing she had to a friend, if she was being honest. He was often off on spying missions, but his company was actually pleasant. He seemed to understand her need for quiet, didn’t push her to talk or interact, wasn’t offended when she disagreed with him.

Cassian looked pained. “Nesta,” he said pleadingly. “If I’ve been unkind to you, I’m sorry. I just, sometimes you’re unkind, too.”

She was. Why deny it? “You all have each other. I am alone here,” she informed him.

Cassian’s hand ghosted over her shoulder, but he pulled back at the last moment, as though afraid to actually touch her, probably guessing — rightly — that she would slap him, or knee him in the groin, if he crossed a boundary. She’d dealt with that sort of nonsense enough as a mortal, and had no intention of allowing fae males to trespass where they weren’t wanted.

“You don’t have to be,” he said quietly.

Like it’s up to me, she almost retorted. But it was up to her, at least somewhat. She was choosing to be alone, and stay intact, stay herself, rather than bend and twist to be someone she wasn’t. An immortal life was far too long to compromise something so essential.

“I am difficult,” she told Cassian. “And that won’t be changing.”

“No one’s asking you to change, Nesta,” Cassian protested.

She almost laughed at him. They wouldn’t ask — they would just expect it.

Cassian sighed, running a hand through his unkempt hair. It was tousled around his face, like he’d just had a workout, or gotten out of bed, and Nesta ignored how sexy it looked on him. “Look, Nes, we’re all old as hell, and set in our ways. It took us decades, if not centuries, to get really comfortable with each other, and we’re still stubborn pricks to each other at times.”

Nesta must have looked unconvinced, for he went on. “It’s been like that since we were younglings. Rhys and I butted heads even after his family took me in out of the snow, gave me everything I had. I still hated his pompous ass for years after that, and we were shitheads to Az, too. He was hurting, traumatized, and Rhys and I didn’t get it.”

“You were children,” Nesta reminded him. So were we, inside that cottage.

“We were assholes,” Cassian said. “Still are, sometimes, to each other. And don’t get me started on Mor and Amren. They get along these days, mostly, but they once fought fiercely enough to level an entire residence.”

Nesta almost smiled. “I would have liked to see that.”

“Hang around us long enough, maybe someday you will,” Cassian joked. But then he grew serious again. “What I’m trying to say is, we’re all cranky old bastards. We sometimes forget the shit we’ve pulled, all the decades and centuries of effort it took to get to the point we’re at now. But there’s no reason why you shouldn’t get the same consideration.”

“I’m not going to fight Mor or Amren,” Nesta said. She didn’t know if she could use her powers without outright killing an opponent.

Cassian’s expression was unreadable, though she could feel that he was uncomfortable. “No one’s going to fight you, Nes.” Then he grinned. “Unless we’re training together.”

“Are you going to be my workout partner?” Nesta asked.

“Workout partner, punching bag, whatever you need. I can take it,” Cassian said. “Or I’ll just stand out here on the balcony with you, watching everyone else enjoy the city.”

Nesta sucked in a sharp breath. He was being so gods-damned reasonable, so perceptive, that it made her jumpy. She didn’t want him to understand her quite so well. “I can’t go down there,” she finally said. “Not with my powers.”

“Why? Are they acting up?” Cassian’s face was all concern. No fear whatsoever.

“No,” Nesta said. “They’re just so… lethal.”

Cassian nodded. “That’s nothing new here. Some of the most lethal faeries live in this city, and the citizens are used to it. Amren, Rhys and Mor all walk among them. Amren is feared a little, but the folk know she will protect them, so they welcome and admire her.”

Nesta considered that. Elain no longer needed her vigilance. But could she use her powers to defend this place, the innocents who lived here? Were they not worth protecting?

She looked up into Cassian’s eyes. “And you?”

Cassian shifted uncomfortably. “They have ideas about me. Good ones,” he added quickly, seeing Nesta’s confusion. “It’s too flattering, probably.”

Nesta raised an eyebrow. “Have you not protected them?”

“Always,” Cassian swore. “I just — I’ve killed a lot of people, guilty and innocent. It’s not a thing worth celebrating.”

Nesta had the sense that he was selling himself short, that he had accomplished many feats worth celebrating, but only said, “Then you know Death.”

“I do. I’ve walked beside Death my whole life,” Cassian said, daring to take her hand. “I know Her. And I’m not afraid.”

Nesta’s hand trembled in his, but she didn’t pull away.