Maybe I really should have worn the other jacket.
It's not too late; she isn't here yet. If he slips away now he can change into the other one—or perhaps he shouldn't wear a jacket? A simple black tunic might be better, except… that was what he wore in the Hewn City, last time he saw her.
When everything went to shit.
Deep down Rhys knows that the musings, the nervous clenching and unclenching of his hands in his pockets, has nothing to do with what he's wearing.
Who would want to bother with that sort of mess?
Centuries of training and dealing with diplomats and emissaries and assholes from other courts keep his thoughts off his face. Instead there is a mask—perhaps not as frightening as the one he has worn for the last fifty years, the one he wore last Starfall, but not true to his emotions either.
Amused, carefree, relaxed. The high lord of the Court of Dreams.
What about letting your friends see your real face?
You're a hateful coward.
She's right, isn't she? He's been a coward all this time, slipping into comfortable roles and parts, exchanging one mask for another as he sees fit—all to spare himself from having to open up about what has happened.
What's been done to him.
A flash of red, an all too cunning smile, a necklace of bones and eyes discarded on the bedside table—
He closes his eyes. Breathes in, breathes out. Opens his eyes again.
She's dead, no more than a rotting corpse in a soon to be forgotten cavern. And the one who set him free…
His mate is probably going to hate him forever if he doesn't talk to her. Explain himself to her. Soon.
A shimmering light on the balcony catches his gaze. He turns his head slightly…
And is captivated.
In over five centuries, Rhysand has never seen a more beautiful sight. The dress, woven of gems that sparkle and shine like starlight, makes it seem as if she herself is casting that light—his mate, a star, fallen from heaven. Every curve of her body, now filled out and healthy, is visible with how tightly the dress clings to her.
Indeed, he catches sight of a few appreciative glances cast by other males, something that irks him to no end. Not that he is much better.
His worries from earlier, his fear of her reaction is almost lost in his mind as all he can find it in himself to do is stare.
But as he gaze sweeps the room he can't help the nervousness that has him clenching his fists again in his pockets, nails biting into his palms despite how short he's kept them recently.
And like the hateful coward he is he ducks out of sight before her eyes can rest on him.
It's stupid. It's so damn, utterly stupid of him to feel this. This is Feyre, his mate, his equal, his friend. He knows that he can trust her, that letting her see to the heart of him is no risk at all.
Who would want to bother with that sort of mess?
It is a risk. It has always been a risk, putting his heart on the line to pull her out of the darkness. But it is a risk he is more than willing to take. And the longer he stays away the worse things will get between them, the longer the wounds they each dealt will be allowed to fester.
And so Rhysand doesn't mind stepping out of the darkness, his darkness, to walk towards her. The brightest star in the night sky.
Feyre's back is to him, a fact that gives Rhysand ample opportunity to get nervous, to hesitate when he is only a few steps from her. She still hasn't noticed him, mostly because her attention remains on Mor in front of her.
"I've had lovers," His cousin is saying, "but… I get bored. And Cassian has had them, too, so don't get that unrequited-love, moony-woo-woo look. He just wants what he can't have, and it's irritated him for centuries that I walked away and never looked back." She finishes. Her eyes catch briefly on Rhysand as she does. The look in her eyes informs him that if he had any thoughts of escaping Feyre's attention it is now too late.
"Oh, it drives him insane," Rhysand says, noticing Feyre's small jump at hearing his voice. A small part of him is sad that she couldn't sense him coming up behind her—how many times has he felt her presence, understood with some innate sense that his mate is close by? But the rest of him is in awe of her, even as he circles around her, at her beauty. He is captivated again by the shape of her, how the curves she has regained fill out her dress.
Cauldron, she's perfect. She's perfect and he can't help the small smile at the thought.
Feyre simply crosses her arms with something like annoyance on her face. Rhys's smile turns into a smirk.
"You look like a woman again." He says, trying to convey the joy he feels at seeing her look healthy.
Because that's how she looks. Healthy and glowing, and not just because of the dress.
He can practically hear Mor's eye roll.
"You really know how to compliment females, cousin," She says and pats him on the shoulder as she walks away. She flashes him a look over Feyre's shoulder, one that very clearly says if you don't work things out with her I will murder you.
Rhys turns his attention back to his mate—his mate who seems to appreciate his attire very much. He fights off a smile as he thanks the Cauldron that he didn't change.
"Do you plan to ignore me some more?" She asks, not meeting his eyes. The question snaps Rhys away from his thoughts and back to the present. To their current situation.
"I'm here now, aren't I?" He says cautiously. "I wouldn't want you to call me a hateful coward again." He meant it to be a joke, meant to take away the power those words have over him, but he can't help the bitterness that creeps into his voice. Bitterness and sadness.
Because saying the words only reminds him how right they are.
Feyre opens her mouth but closes it again. And perhaps some other time Rhys would have interpreted her silence as agreement, as confirmation that they do indeed both believe him to be just that. But the look in her eyes, in his mate's eyes, reveals the hurt she is trying to bury deep inside.
And he can't keep his stomach from plummeting and his throat from seizing up at the realization that her hurt is his doing. That if he hadn't hidden from her, hadn't turned away from her, perhaps the two of them would be in a better situation right now.
"I wasn't punishing you. I just… I needed time," He gets out, breath shaking and voice hoarse.
Feyre swallows and glances quickly up at him before looking away again.
"Will you please tell me what this… gathering is about?" She says. Rhys recognizes it for what it is; a peace offering of sorts—and a promise to return to this discussion later, with less of an audience and more courage.
With his heart a fraction lighter, Rhys steps up behind her and leans down to her ear. He can't help the small snort when he tells her, "Look up."
She does as he asks just as Rhysand feels rather than hears the anticipatory hush that falls over everyone gathered—all the same, his senses are more focused on the female in front of him.
"No speech for your guests?" Feyre murmurs quietly and the quip brings a smile to Rhys's face, even though she can't see him. It almost feels like things used to be between them, before he managed to fuck it all up.
"Tonight's not about me, though my presence is appreciated and noted," he says while moving his hand to point upwards. "Tonight's about that."
Never in his life has Rhys been more grateful for timing then he is the moment the first star—spirit—vaults across the sky.
The crowd cheers and drinks, and a heavy wave of some unnamed emotion comes over Rhys.
Fifty years he has been away from this. Now that he at last returns he finds that despite everything about the celebration being the same, he might well not be. Perhaps, after being locked away in the dark for so long, a darkness not of his own doing… Perhaps that darkness will inevitably consume him.
A small rush of warmth bring him back to the present and he finds Feyre leaning back against him. And even though she quickly pulls away—something that would most likely wound him in any other situation—for the moment he is grateful that, knowingly or not, she has brought him back from that darkness.
Or perhaps stepped right into it with him, to light his path when he needs it but ultimately teach him once again that darkness, his darkness… is nothing to be afraid of.
So Rhys stares at his mate for a long moment, watching her awe as the spirits cascade overhead, watching the light illuminate her face.
The musicians start playing, and Rhys looks up to see his friends, his family, dancing on the floor among the rest of the party goers—but still, there is something off. The all too wild movements of his cousin, the too wide smiles and loud laughter of his brothers. It is something he hasn't seen since the war, over 500 years ago.
All of them intent on enjoying themselves to the fullest, just in case they never have another opportunity to smile and laugh and dance.
Again, Rhys is reminded of the years he has spent locked away, but this time he can name the emotion he feels.
To finally come back to his family, to the place he belongs, and find himself at risk of losing them all over again.
He looks towards the female in front of him, the puzzle piece none of them had known was missing—and finds that she is already looking at him.
And because he is all too aware that this may be the last hours of peace for any of them, because he still needs to put their last encounter behind them, and because he is all too aware of all the ways that, despite belonging here he doesn't fit in, Rhys finds himself reaching a hand out to her.
"Come. There's a better view. Quieter."
It might be an indication of how far gone he is that despite everything, their fight and their lives and his hopelessness and the darkness consuming him, his heart leaps when she accepts his hand.
Rhys leads her quietly through the House of Wind until they reach the upper level and he selects one of the small private balconies that overlook the city. On the patios down below they can still see the festivities and dancing, but the people are harder to discern and the music is softer.
Feyre looks out at the stars that zoom across the sky before taking a seat on the balcony rail. After a quick look down the mountain side she seems to rethink that decision and steps back.
Rhys can't help a small chuckle.
"If you fell, you know I'd bother to save you before you hit the ground," He says, looking at her.
"But not until I was close to death?" She asks back. It's meant to be a joke, Rhys knows, but there is bitterness in her voice.
"Maybe," Rhys says quietly, careful to keep light humor in his voice—as if he'd let any harm come to her.
"As punishment for what I said to you?" All humor is gone out of her voice and her eyes are fixed on the spirits above, as if she can't bear to meet his gaze.
Rhysand, on the other hand, finds that he wants nothing more than to be able to look into her eyes in this moment.
"I said some horrible things, too," He says quietly, wishing with everything he has that she would just look at him, just give him a glimpse of what is going on behind the shields surrounding her mind.
"I didn't mean it," She says all of a sudden and turns to meet his eyes. Rhys's throat constricts at the pleading sincerity in her voice, her face. "I meant it more about myself than you. And I'm sorry."
Who would want to bother with that sort of mess?
You're a hateful coward.
He finds that now, he's the one who can't meet her gaze.
"You were right, though. I stayed away because you were right. Though I'm glad to hear my absence felt like a punishment."
She lets out a low snort and Rhys can feel his lips twitching in response. If there's one thing he's grateful for it's being able to at least entertain her—Feyre, his mate.
"Any news with the orb or the queens?" She asks him, changing the subject.
"Nothing yet. We're waiting for them to deign to reply."
They stand silent for a moment, Feyre studying the spirits above them and Rhys sneaking glances at her.
She looks… peaceful. As if she's finally come to terms with herself, her past, her place in the world.
She looks like she belongs here.
"They're not—they're not stars at all," She finally says. Not really a question.
"No." Rhys comes to stand beside her. "Our ancestors thought they were but… They're just spirits, on a yearly migration to somewhere. Why they pick this day to appear here, no one knows."
He looks at her, feeling something stir on the other side of the bond despite the walls she now keeps up at all times—something he is very proud of. She returns his gaze for a few moments before looking back up towards the sky.
"There must be hundreds of them," She says, voice a little bit strained.
"Thousands," Rhys replies. "They'll keep coming until dawn. Or, I hope they will. There were less and less of them last time I witnessed Starfall."
Rhys sees a shadow pass over her face as she realizes what he must mean—last time he witnessed Starfall was fifty years ago, before that red bitch locked him away.
"What's happening to them?" Feyre asks, turning Rhys's thoughts back towards the sky. He shrugs, trying to find his voice again.
"I wish I knew. But they keep coming back despite it," He says. His heart lifts a little at the thought.
They keep coming back despite whatever hardships befall them. They come back.
"Why does anything cling to something? Maybe they love wherever they're going so much that it's worth it. Maybe they'll keep coming back, until there's only one star left. Maybe that one star will make the trip forever, out of the hope that someday—if it keeps coming back often enough—another star will find it again."
"That's… a very sad thought," Feyre says after a short pause.
"Indeed." Rhys leans forward, painfully aware of the short distance between him and Feyre. He would barely have to reach out to take her hand in his.
There is a long pause, a calm silence that stretches on into the night.
And above them the spirits race across the sky, the cause if the light and shadows that dance across his mate's face, her form, reflecting in her dress.
And it occurs to Rhysand that if it weren't for her—if it weren't for Feyre—he'd be spending this Starfall exactly as he did his last.
In the darkened caverns of a defiled mountain with only red filling his vision.
"Every year that I was Under the Mountain and Starfall came around, Amarantha made sure that I…" Rhys hesitates, not entirely sure why he's telling her this, only that he needs someone, anyone, to hear it. To listen. "Serviced her. The entire night. Starfall is no secret, even to outsiders—even the Court of Nightmares crawls out of the Hewn City to look up at the sky. So she knew… She knew what it meant to me." He finishes, not daring look up at her. Knowing that if he does she will see the shame, the pain that still lingers there.
Still wanting her to know, to at least share the burden—if only a little bit.
"I'm sorry," She says quietly.
"I got through it by reminding myself that my friends were safe; that Velaris was safe. Nothing else mattered, so long as I had that. She could use my body however she wanted. I didn't care." And he would have done it all over again, a thousand Starfalls if that was what it took.
"So why aren't you down there with them?" Feyre's gentle words have Rhys looking down at the party on the patios, where three figures are recognizable—one with golden hair, another two with wings tucked into their backs, occasionally flaring out as they dance.
"They don't know," He nearly whispers, feeling the shame rise again. "What she did to me on Starfall. I don't want it to ruin their night."
"I don't think it would. They'd be happy if you let them shoulder the burden."
"The same way you rely on others to help you with your own troubles?" He asks, genuinely curious. Because perhaps… perhaps by pulling her back to her feet, he may already have begun the journey out of those caverns.
For a long moment the two of them simply stare at each other.
Feyre's brow furrows slightly, her expression turning pensive. Rhys can feel her fingers upon his, running lightly down the length of them.
He will never admit it, but his breath catches slightly at that gesture, and his eyes don't leave her face as she turns it towards him, the light and shadows upon it seeming to contrast more brightly just as…
Something slams into the side of her face.
There is a split second of panic at the sight of his mate bent over, shielding her face—despite which he can see the light that seems to emit from her cheek, reflecting in her dress.
Rhys lets out a startled laugh as he realizes what it is.
It's been known to happen, not often down in the city of Velaris but in the House of Wind and the mountain hills above and around. The spirits of Starfall sometimes end their journey prematurely. As gruesome as it is to think, the beauty of the spirits doesn't diminish with their demise.
Feyre turns to Rhys with an incredulous look.
"I could have been blinded!" She hisses and shoves him.
That look on her face, paired with the soft light of the spirit now smeared across her face is comical enough that Rhys bursts out laughing again.
She all but rolls her eyes at him, even as she wipes at her cheek to get a look at what hit her. Rhys sees the realization dawn upon her, and a mixture of emotions wash across her face. Amusement. Disgust. Fascination. It only makes him laugh harder.
She tries to rub the rest of it off and Rhys finds himself reaching forward, grabbing hold of her hands in his.
"Don't," he says, still chuckling. "It looks like your freckles are glowing."
He realizes a little late, at the sight of her disbelieving eyes and flared nostrils, that saying so while laughing probably made it sound less like the compliment he meant it as.
She makes an attempt to shove him off the balcony and while he knows they both know he wouldn't come to harm he still sidesteps, finding some amusement in the agitation in her eyes.
Not that he gets to see much of it, since he is all of a sudden hit with the same manner of attack that started their bickering.
"Shit." But Rhys's hands are too late to avoid the star-spirit now splattered across his face.
Feyre starts laughing.
And even though Rhys wants to be offended by that—didn't she nearly push him off a balcony for doing the same, only half a minute ago?—the sound of her laughter is the most beautiful sound he has ever heard.
Rhys brings his hands down from his face and looks down at them. They are now covered in the same glittering dust as Feyre's hands, Feyre's face.
As if thinking the same thing, Feyre steps forward, closer to him. Looking at his hands as well.
Taking his hand in her own.
Rhys doesn't know if he's breathing, doesn't think it would matter if he wasn't.
Her other hand starts pushing around the glittering dust in his palm, playing with it until Rhys can make out the shape of… a star.
It's that thoughtless playing, her return to something she loves doing, that brings a smile to his face and has him tightening his fingers around hers.
And Feyre, who glances up at him just then, smiles back.
Rhys can distantly feel his face go slack, feel his breath catch if only slightly. But his entire being, all of his energy, is focused on his mate before him. His mate who, for the first time, just smiled at him.
"Smile again," he whispers, half begging but not caring that he is—because the truth is that he would give anything for that smile. For that sign of her happiness.
Feyre's eyes grow soft with some realization and she glances down at his hand. At the star she just painted into his palm.
And then she looks back up at him and does exactly what he wished—she smiles brighter than the stardust lighting up her face.
"You're exquisite," Rhys breathes out, not fully realizing that he's said it out loud.
Feyre doesn't look away from his eyes. For a long moment Rhys can't think beyond her eyes, her face, how he longs to reach out and stroke her cheek, to trace the constellations of her glowing freckles. Terrified, even now, that she will turn him away.
"You owe me two thoughts," Feyre interrupts his musings, her voice low. "Back from when I first came here. Tell me what you're thinking."
Rhys reaches up a hand to rub at his neck—careful not to use the hand she'd just painted on. He will be keeping that untouched for as long as possible, hoping the act can somehow sear it into his skin.
"You want to know why I didn't speak or see you? Because I was so convinced you'd throw me out on my ass. I just…" Rhys can't help a small laugh. "I figured hiding was a better alternative."
"Who would have thought the High Lord of the Night Court could be afraid of an illiterate human?" Feyre's purr draws out an automatic grin on Rhys's face and he nudges her elbow.
This is something he could get used to—should get used to, if he wants to have any sort of future with her. Honesty.
"That's one," Feyre insists. "Tell me another thought."
His eyes are drawn to her face, towards her lips, where the dust of the star spirit creates a breathtaking sight.
"I'm wishing I could take back that kiss under the Mountain."
It's a truth he is almost afraid to reveal to her—there are so many ways this conversation could go wrong.
Feyre is silent for a while, her brow furrowed in thought. Rhys wonders if she's remembering it, the dark and the pain and the way he didn't ask, didn't give her a choice. He certainly remembers—the anger he still didn't have the words for at seeing Tamlin touch her, the leering of Amarantha's court.
The way Feyre tried to push him off. That haunts him the most.
"Why?" She asks, and the question surprises him. Not because he didn't think she'd want to know his motives—he has already anticipated that—but the way she asks, the way she seems almost disappointed.
"Because I didn't make it pleasant for you, and I was jealous and pissed off, and I knew you hated me," Rhys says, his eyes fixed on the star she drew in his palm as he holds in the rest of the reasons why.
Because that shouldn't have been the first kiss I gave you.
He dares a glance up, and finds Feyre looking at him intently, with some surprise on her face—but there is longing as well. Longing for something he finds himself wanting as well.
If all were right in the world, if they had found each other as mates are meant to—not through blood, or hatred, not in torture or death—this would have been the turning point.
Right here, with the stars shining on his mate's face, her eyes focused on his just as they are now, Rhys would lean in until their lips are barely an inch apart. And because he still wouldn't know, still wouldn't be sure, he would hesitate, and perhaps…
No, not perhaps. If all were right, she would urge him on. She would reach up to him and press their lips together.
Because he wouldn't be the monster who helped lock her away, who stole her from her own wedding. He would never have been Rhysand, her betrothed's enemy. He would simply have been Rhys.
Feyre swallows, then draws her finger along the inside of his wrist. Rhys can barely suppress a shudder, has to keep himself from breathing at all to prevent her from hearing his breath catch.
"Do you—do you want to dance with me?" Feyre asks, not looking into his eyes, her voice a mere whisper.
Rhys isn't sure he knows how to breathe anymore. And what does it matter? Feyre just asked him to dance—the last time either of them did any dancing around the other she was drugged and unwilling, and he had on the mask of the cruel King of Nightmares.
But there is no mask on tonight—something he realizes as he feels the tears start to form in his eyes and Feyre looks up at him.
"You want to dance?" He asks, his voice not quite as controlled as it was before. He clasps at her fingers, desperate to convince himself that this is real, this is real and she is here.
"Down there," She says, nudging with her chin towards the party—the one he had all but forgotten about. "With them," She continues, a small smile on her face, a light in her eyes Rhys would give anything to see.
"Of course I'll dance with you—all night if you wish," Rhys says. He doesn't even have to put in any effort to be honest.
"Even if I step on your toes?" Feyre asks with a small smirk.
"Even then." It's almost a reflex, the way he leans in to brush his mouth against her cheek, the one that sparkles and shines with the coat of stardust.
There is very little in the world he wouldn't give to stay this close to her. To hold her tight and never let go.
He pulls back, not fighting the smile at the sight of her, at the feeling of being around her.
"I am…" in love with you, "very glad I met you, Feyre."
"Come on," She tells him as she takes his hand and pulls him back towards the sound of life drifting from below. "Let's go join the dance."
Rhys's smile doesn't fade as she leads him back into the house, into the rooms now enclosed in darkness for the celebration.
Because in front of him is the only light he'll ever need—the person he would trust, unequivocally, to lead him out of the dark.
His star. His mate.