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My Fair Warrior, Pt. 2

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0300 28 JUN 2021. Spring Valley, Washington, D.C., United States of America

Purging my stomach couldn’t cleanse the guilt from my blood.

I clung to the toilet, heaving until I could barely breathe.

It had only been a nightmare--I hadn’t really killed those people again, hadn’t really heard the woman chanting the Lord’s Prayer or felt her blood spill over my hands. I released my grip on the rim of of the toilet and curled my fingers into my palm until I almost pricked the skin with my fingernails. Real--this was real.

I stared at the ink-stained skin of my fingers, hand, and forearm. It had been an impulsive thing. I hadn’t been back in the States long when I’d invited a fine arts student and aspiring tattoo artist from American University to come over when Tamlin was gone and tattoo the swirling markings down my fingers in five vine-like lines until they connected at my wrist in a thick band. I hadn’t been able to slip away from the house or Tamlin’s careful eye or the media’s cameras long enough to go to a proper shop, but I’d promised to pay the art student well and she hadn’t minded bringing her kit to me.

Tamlin had been furious.

“Why would you choose his marks?” he’d demanded. “That--what he drew on you, when you were desperate? He was a traitor!”

I hadn’t been able to answer. Hadn’t been able to explain why I’d felt compelled to make permanent the rough etchings Rhysand Knight had drawn on my skin when he’d saved me from an infected injury. Maybe it reminded me that I’d survived. That--in the end, despite the trials and the controversy and the mixed reports--that Rhysand hadn’t been my enemy. Not entirely.

Almost every soldier was tattooed, I’d told Tamlin. And no one had to know why I’d chosen the design I had.

The cameras had noticed. Our producer had noticed. Blurry pictures of my tattooed hand had circled around Twitter and Facebook and had even been a segment on the evening news.

And yet I couldn’t regret it.

Another wave of nausea swept me as the shadows danced across the room and the bathroom felt too small and cold . . .

Real. You’re home. I wasn’t in Russia, I was in Spring Valley, in America . . .

In the other room, Tamlin slept on. I crawled back out to him, wiping the cold sweat from my brow. I climbed back into bed on top of the cool sheets, tracing my fingers over his solid back as I curled up beside him. My body still hummed in places from where we’d made love earlier--after months of recovery, my casts and splints were gone, and though soreness still flared in my body from time to time, I’d healed remarkably from the torture inflicted upon me by the Russian General Afanasiia Konstantinovna . . . Amarantha, as we’d called her. A miracle, the press claimed. A beautiful road to recovery, as branded by our producer.

It was all razzle dazzle. It wasn’t beautiful, and it wasn’t really recovery. If it was, perhaps I wouldn’t still be waking up in the middle of the night to vomit up my guts. Even Tamlin still had nightmares, woke up in the middle of the night to watch for intruders, unable to be shaken even by my gestures.

Ianthe had taken the cameras out of our bedroom after a while, deciding that the viewers wouldn’t want to see all of that.

I stared at Tamlin’s hair as I waited in vain for sleep to come again. I’d done it for him--killed those people for him. Wrecked myself . . . for him. It had to be enough.

We never spoke about it, and it was one of the agreements we’d made with Ianthe when we’d signed the contract for the show. No discussing what had happened in Russia. We let Amarantha win if we let her haunt us.

“Of course,” Ianthe had simpered.

Too bad it seemed that Amarantha would haunt us no matter what.

-

1800 23 JUN 2021. Spring Valley, Washington, D.C., United States of America.

“I want to go.”

“No.”

“It’s been six months. I need to get out and do something.”

“You don’t need to do anything,” Tamlin insisted. “You’ve done plenty.” He adjusted his cufflinks on his suit, his blonde hair combed back. It was fairly long now--he hadn’t cut it since we’d gotten back. He kept it neatly gelled, and his face was clean-shaven. He looked every inch a cabinet member’s son, and tonight he was going to a benefit to raise funds for a charity dedicated to helping soldiers return from the warfront. Raising money for a program, ironically, that he’d declined to use himself--that he hadn’t let me use, either. “We have to be strong,” he’d said. “We don’t need any of that stuff.”

That stuff. The programs, the support . . . it was better for the son of the former Secretary of Defense to come back strong, undamaged by the war his father had helped start. That applied to me, as well.

I wanted to go anyway, wanted to get out of the house, but Tamlin had forbidden it. “You don’t need the attention on you.”

My gaze instantly snapped to the camera in the room, but I quickly looked away again. We weren’t supposed to look right at the cameras all that much. Still, they were here all the time, under the careful direction and restraint of Ianthe Callahan, the director and producer of the reality show meant to document our return to civilian life. The cameras were everywhere, a presence that I’d accepted but never quite adjusted to. It struck me as odd that Tamlin told me not to come to the benefit because of the attention. We’d had nothing but attention since returning home.

I twisted the diamond ring on my finger, marking my engagement to Tamlin. He’d asked me to marry him three months after our return, and after Ianthe had caught my original glee on camera, she’d had Tamlin ask me three more times so she could get every angle. The episode had premiered to enraptured audiences and had set records across the country.

Heroes’ Homecoming. That was what our show was called.

When Tamlin had approached me with the idea, I hadn’t had it in me to say no, to deny him this. He’d said it would be better if we had control over the narrative the American people consumed, rather than let them decide what we were, what we would be. His father had approved the idea--though the former Secretary himself had never appeared on the show, he had thought it might help his own reputation in the waning months of the war and the dawn of a new presidency. Everyone had wanted it, and I hadn’t dared say no. And then the cameras had moved in, and the interviews and Ianthe’s constant presence had become a fact of life.

Thankfully, I liked Ianthe. Born and raised in the Deep South--Charleston, South Carolina, to be precise--her accent and purebred charm was a comfort every time she flashed her bright smile at me. It was actually something of a relief to let her guide my life, to put me in places and coach me through interactions and so forth. She helped Tamlin decide where I went--where I needed to go--and kept me company when he was out doing events for his father and various charities. Tamlin had also suggested--rather ominously--that it was safer for me to stay near the house. As though our enemies might make their way onto home soil. Or perhaps people might target me or him as revenge against his father’s policies.

“Feyre, you don’t like parties anyway,” Tamlin said. “Stay here and rest. I know your hand has been aching lately.”

I flexed my tattooed fingers out of habit. It did still ache sometimes--the hand Amarantha had broken apart piece by piece. It was my non-dominant hand, but still . . . whenever the night became particularly chill or I forgot to do my exercises, it would seize up and pain would shoot through my arm.

Just then, Lucien arrived, pausing and eyeing the cameras distrustfully. His glass eye--replacement for the one he’d lost in Russia--didn’t move the way his natural one did, and he was still self-conscious about it. “Tamlin, Feyre,” he said in greeting.

“Hey, Lucien,” I said softly.

Lucien glanced between us as Tamlin said, “Why don’t you try painting? There’s that new set I got you for our anniversary.”

I nodded, but I didn’t tell him I’d still been unable to paint anything, and not because of my hand.

“Your father’s waiting,” Lucien said to Tamlin. He glanced at me. “Perk up, Feyre. There’s always the party at the end of the week.”

I nodded again in silence. It wasn’t the party--it was the desire to do something. Something useful. But I hadn’t been allowed to so much as go to a food drive since I’d fully recovered.

Still, I put on a smile and let Tamlin and Lucien go, curling up on the couch to watch mindless television instead. I buried myself in a thick blanket and drank hot chocolate prepared by Tamlin’s housekeeper, Alis. I idly flipped through the channels, the cameras whirring in the background though most of the cameramen had either gone home or followed Tamlin to the benefit.

I paused on the nightly news channel and my stomach seized when I saw his picture there.

Rhysand.

Polished, composed, his black hair perfectly coiffed as always. His angled face, not as pale as it had been when we’d last seen each other in Germany, held an even and calm expression as he was escorted in and out of the courtroom. The newscaster spoke over a muted video of him briefly addressing the press. The banner beneath read, “RHYSAND KNIGHT: JURY REMAINS OUT ON TREASON.”

Treason . . . even I still didn’t know the truth of what had happened. All I knew was that he had saved me in the end, saved us all. I’d offered to testify for him, but he hadn’t contacted me.

Hadn’t contacted me at all in the six months we’d been home.

I didn’t realize how intently I’d been staring at the screen, at the images of Rhysand’s face, until gentle fingers pried the remote from my fingers and the TV clicked off, turning black and leaving streaks of color like oil on the pavement behind my eyelids.

“That’s enough of that, sweet pea,” Ianthe’s honeyed voice said. “Why don’t you head to bed?”

I nodded distantly and walked up to the bedroom, wearing the blanket as a cloak. And I waited in the dark for sleep to claim me, the nightmares to come, or for Tamlin to come home . . . whichever came first.

-

0900 03 JUL 2021. Spring Valley, Washington, D.C., United States of America.

The week slipped by, and when the day of the party Tamlin was hosting came, I wasn’t sure of much of what I’d done.

The physical therapist had come to work with my hand and arms--both of which had been broken by Amarantha--and Ianthe’s cameras had whirred the whole time, catching countless hours of footage that she’d likely never use. After each session, she would ask the therapist to sit down and say a few words, but the therapist always refused, packing up and bustling out as soon as our session was over. Then Ianthe would have me sit in the corner of the living room she’d staged for interview segments and ask me how I thought my own recovery was going. I’d give bland answers, faint smiles, and somehow dredge up some optimistic turn of phrase that would put a good face on things. Then I’d curl up in front of the TV again and nap, the muttering of nonsense television playing in the background.

One day I’d been woken from my nap by the TV playing an action movie. The dramatized gunshots had sent me launching out of my chair with a banshee-like scream, racing toward the door in nothing but my pajamas. Alis had caught me by the door and she and Ianthe had managed to calm me down. Then they’d immediately called my psychiatrist.

Acute Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Shell-shock, as it had once been called.

Every time I heard a sharp noise, whether it be a door slamming or a motorcycle backfiring or even sometimes the newspaper hitting the porch, I flashed back to the moment I was broken and bleeding on Amarantha’s floor, helpless as she fired three bullets into Rhysand Knight’s body.

It didn’t matter that he’d survived, that we all had. It was as though my brain had frozen that day--a snag in the reel--and no matter what I did or what happened to me next, I would always, always snap back to that moment.

Sounds weren’t the only thing that triggered it. I couldn’t see the color red without seeing the blood of those innocent prisoners pouring over my shaking hands.

I couldn’t even look at the American Flag. Because I knew--understood, for the very first time--why the red and white stripes were blood and innocence.

Some American hero I was.

Tamlin had PTSD, too, though a milder form, as I understood it. He didn’t watch television at all, because any remotely distressing image or sound sent him up the wall--though he was far better at staying composed than I was. It would visit him later in the night, though. I was the one who was a wreck both day and night.

Ianthe would sometimes keep me occupied by helping me sort out the last-minute details of the wedding, which would take place on the Fourth of July--Independence Day, in a little over a week. It would be so romantic and symbolic, both Ianthe and the wedding planner had insisted. And, it would take place before the midterm election season got underway and all the important Washington personalities would be occupied. It always perplexed me how politicians got going so early--it seemed ridiculous to me. But since the presidency had shifted from Republican to Democrat again just after I’d been rescued (some speculated that my rescue directly contributed to a last-minute shift in the Democrat’s favor), Congress was out of sorts and trying to rally support in either major party. I knew the barest details of what was going on. All I needed to know, Ianthe told me, was the seating plan for the wedding banquet so we wouldn’t accidentally sit any political enemies beside each other.

I had been happy to let the wedding planner she’d hired take the reigns on it, though we’d butted heads about the wedding dress I was to wear. I’d wanted something simple and understated, but Ianthe had shown me the Pinterest boards of avid fans of our show, and they seemed to universally wish to see me in a massive, frothy princess gown. I hated the one the wedding planner had picked out, but Ianthe insisted she was a professional and that we needed to trust her. Tamlin, to my chagrin, had agreed.

Besides my complaints about the dress, I’d had only one request--no red. The wedding planner, a flighty, camera-happy woman who loved pantsuits and fake eyelashes, was put-out when I’d turned down her idea of a patriotic wedding theme, but then she’d seen me nearly vomit at the sight of the roses she’d set out among her optional floral arrangements and understood. She’d conceded that having it on Independence Day would be patriotic enough and there was “no need to overdo things.”

I was already exhausted by the time the party on Saturday night began, but I like Alis and Ianthe’s hair and makeup team dress me in a frothy eggshell-colored dress with pearls at my earrings and around my wrist. There had been a pearl necklace to match, but it had slipped only once to cling too tightly to my throat and I’d begun to hyperventilate as I’d remembered Amarantha’s hands gripping my neck to snap it.

I’d wanted a dress with sleeves--I rarely showed my arms in public, littered with scars as they were. My forearms were scarred from where the broken bones had punctured the skin, and my biceps were scarred from various other injuries. The worst was on my left arm--a long, ragged scar that Rhysand had stitched together with his First Aid skills. Though his stitching had proved remarkable, the scar had never faded. Sometimes I could still feel the jagged rock that had punctured me there like a phantom late at night as I tried and failed to sleep.

I shook the thoughts away as two of the men from Tamlin’s fraternity approached me where I was standing by the fireplace. Ianthe was nearby, and she nodded in encouragement, her blonde curls bouncing. I squinted as I tried to remember their names . . . Bron and Hart.

“Congratulations on the wedding,” Bron said after he and Hart had re-introduced themselves. “A fitting end, eh?”

A fitting end would have been me in a grave, burning in hell.

I swallowed and ran through the mental exercises my therapist had given me for when such thoughts plagued me, but they were as effective as whispers on the wind.

“God blesses His children,” Ianthe cooed.

Hart nodded eagerly and Bron smiled tightly. Not everyone was fond of Ianthe’s brand of bubbly, devout Christianity. Soldiers who had seen war, especially, had less patience for it. I certainly did. The God Ianthe spoke of, if He was truly just, would have no mercy on me. And if He was as good as she said . . .

“I have to say,” Bron said, “the way you rigged that device to go off when she least expected it . . . brilliant. Just brilliant.”

In my mind’s eye I was frantically reaching for the button on Rhysand’s device as Amarantha had crushed my ribs, making me choke on my own blood--

I hadn’t been the one to rig the devices. That had been Rhysand. I’d just been stupid enough to press the button instead of letting Amarantha kill me.

But I had to be pleasant. “Thank you,” I said.

Ianthe gave me a comforting squeeze from where she stood off-camera, and it gave me the wherewithal to paste that bland smile back on my face.

“We missed the outing the other day, so we haven’t had a chance to see your talents up close, but I’d pay for the chance to see you on the range,” Hart said, chattering thoughtlessly.

The idiot. I hadn’t been on a range since it all had happened. I’d had no desire to hold a gun in my hands since everything had happened. Hell, I could barely hold a kitchen knife. And my marksmanship was only passable. I’d always been most successful hunting with a bow, but even that held no appeal for me now. It didn’t matter anyway. Tamlin would never in a thousand years let me on a range with these greenhorns--it had become painfully clear to me in our short conversation that neither of these men had ever seen a battlefield. The most they knew of war was Call of Duty. They’d likely had their rich parents pay to keep from being pressured into service. The Draft hadn’t been enacted, but the pressure for young people to enlist when the war started had been intense.

But I still had to answer them. Swallowing the bile that had risen in my throat, I said, “Perhaps after the wedding.”

“Will you family be at the wedding? I hear you have sisters?”

I rolled my lips together as I thought about Nesta and Elain. “Nesta is running my father’s business and Elain is studying abroad,” I said. “New Zealand,” I added before either could ask. “Sadly they can’t make it into town.”

I hadn’t seen my sisters at all since returning, actually. I’d been too injured for a while, and then after that, I hadn’t had it in me to reach out. And Nesta . . . I knew she would wait for me. She wouldn’t push or press me--and she likely thought the reality show a piece of garbage. Elain had been in college still, and I hadn’t had the heart to call her away from her studies in botany. I didn’t think they’d want anything to do with this broken version of their sister, anyway.

Hart’s eyes fell to my hands, crossed over my chest. “Interesting tattoo. Has Knight contacted you at all?”

I stiffened and instinctively tucked my hand under my arm. “No. Why would he?” How did he know about the tattoo?

“Those vines--they’re his company’s signature motif. Not an official logo, but it’s everywhere on their marketing, their website . . . I’ve been using the stuff for years, so I recognize it.” He glanced sideways at Bron. “Switched back to Apple after he turned out to be a traitor, though.”

“The jury is still out,” I said stiffly, but Hart just shrugged. Inside, I was cursing myself. I’d been too poor to use or even know much about the technology Rhysand’s company made--the tech company he’d purchased right out of college and quickly turned into the world’s biggest communication technology corporation. It hadn’t even occurred to me that other people might recognize the drawing Rhys had made on my skin, or that Rhys would be conceited enough to draw his own company’s motif on me.

“He’d be scared to show his face here anyway, even if he could,” Bron said.

“Then you don’t know Rhysand very well at all.”

Hart and Bron both blinked in surprise, and even I was startled by my own assertiveness, and in Rhysand’s defense, no less. I only hoped the two wouldn’t go spreading it around.

“Well, we’re on the former Secretary’s private security team,” Bron boasted, chest puffing. I was too weary to hide my disbelief. These untested frat boys? “If he tries to get anywhere near here, we’ll stop him.”

“My congregation is prayin’ for the Lord to build a hedge of protection around our hero,” Ianthe chimed in. “The Lord will provide.”

My stomach turned and Bron and Hart both nodded in half-hearted agreement.

“I’m going upstairs,” I said to Ianthe, not bothering to say a polite goodbye to Bron and Hart. “Tell Tamlin I’ll see him in the morning.”

“Just let me know if you need anything, all right, sugar?” Ianthe simpered. I nodded vaguely.

As I left the room, I glanced over to where Tamlin, Lucien, and Tamlin’s father were all entertaining a gaggle of enthusiastic politicians and socialites and friends of Tamlin’s from college. They seemed . . . happy. Tamlin’s laugh chased me down the hall, and when I finally closed myself in my room, I realized that I hadn’t laughed at all in over a year.

Chapter Text

2000 04 JUL 2021. The Mall, Washington, D.C., United States of America

I had never used Pinterest, but now I hated it with a burning passion.

It was thanks to the Pinterest boards of the fans of the show that I’d been forced to wear this frothy monstrosity for my wedding. But it would help the ratings, Ianthe had said. Give the fans what they want.

The small, tiny part of me that had been a soldier and had cared about my dignity rebelled at that, but it was too weak to argue in the face of Ianthe’s personality and Tamlin’s hopeful smile. So I put on the white mass of cloudlike fabric, fearing that it might rise up and suffocate me at any moment, and squeezed into the back of the limousine that would take me to the wedding venue.

The Mall. Of course.

My requests for a private wedding had been ignored, and instead a grand gazebo had been decorated on the Mall for the whole world to see. Cameras not affiliated with the show were kept at a further distance, but all the news crews were out to see America’s heroes getting married. We’d waited until just before sunset, when summer lanterns could be lit along the aisle and the heat of the day could break. The sky was stained in rainbow colors behind the Lincoln Memorial, but I barely registered the colors. I just focused on my breathing, trying not to scratch at my skin nervously. Scratching wouldn’t do much good, anyway, not with the silk gloves the wedding planner had insisted I wear to cover the tattoos.

To hide the soldier. To paint the bride.

Ianthe had carefully selected the minister who would marry us, and every little detail was at last in place. All I had to do was walk to the end of the aisle and say yes.

“You look beautiful,” Ianthe murmured to me before hustling off to make last-minute adjustments to the cameras.

The white-painted seats were filled with our guests, none of whom I knew all that well. Even my bridal party was small, featuring Tamlin’s distant cousins and two daughters of important politicians as bridesmaids. Their chattering had been a distraction from my nerves, but now I was on my own. My father couldn’t be here to give me away, and I’d asked that no one take his place. I wanted to do this on my own. Ianthe had said something about it being brave and fitting, but I hadn’t cared about any of that.

The music began, and Ianthe gestured at me to move forward, down the white carpet spread over the grass down the aisle, toward the gazebo where Tamlin waited.

Tamlin.

The sunset crowned his golden head and he smiled at me, and I felt tears prick the corners of my eyes. Only . . . they didn’t feel like tears of joy. I looked at him in his black suit and golden tie and perfect hair, every inch a politician’s son and functional human being, and I . . . I was a shell of a person hidden in layers of tulle.

I focused on him, telling myself to keep moving, as I stepped over the flower petals scattered on the ground . . .

Then my eyes went wide. Red petals. On white.

Red on white on red on white on red on white on red blood on skin on blood on skin and so much blood . . .

I tore my eyes away and focused on Tamlin, but I’d already stopped breathing. He held out his hand to me and I took it. He didn’t say anything about how badly I was shaking. I looked down at the hand that held mine and had to blink as it was suddenly stained red, as sharp talons drew forth and pricked me.

The world was spinning. I was going to be sick.

The minister performed his part but I heard not a single word as my eyes swam and I tried to breathe but couldn’t--

“Feyre?” Tamlin murmured.

I shook my head. I couldn’t say a word, not without vomiting, and then . . .

“If there is anyone present who knows of any reason why these two should not be joined in lawful matrimony, speak now or forever hold your peace.”

I held my breath. If this was over, we could say I do, and then I could get out of here. Just . . . a little more . . .

Then, an explosion.

I leapt back from Tamlin with a horrified shriek as the world shook around me and my mind was utterly consumed with color and sound and total panic.

“Feyre!” Tamlin called, but I could barely hear him. I shook my head and lifted up my skirts to run, run away from whatever was burning, exploding. They were here--the Russians were here. Amarantha hadn’t died. She was going to take me again, take me and make me suffer and--

My flight was halted by a rock-solid body in the middle of the aisle.

I gasped and stumbled back, my eyes somehow finding a point to focus on--a point of solid black.

“Hello, Feyre darling,” Rhysand purred.

-

2045 04 JUL 2021. The Mall, Washington, D.C., United States of America.

I sucked in a rattling breath as Rhysand cocked his head at me. “I hate fireworks, don’t you?” he asked.

Fireworks . . . fireworks!

Not an explosion. Not the Russians.

God-damned fireworks.

“What are you doing here, Knight?” Tamlin snarled. “Security!”

“No need for that,” Rhysand said dismissively, raising a hand. “I’m simply doing as your charming minister requested.”

“Excuse me?” Tamlin demanded.

“I have an objection,” Rhysand purred.

The audience was silent. Only the distant sound of fireworks filled the air, filled my blood. I was barely hanging onto my sanity--

“Aren’t you supposed to be in prison, Rhysand?” Lucien demanded from Tamlin’s side--his best man.

“Oh, didn’t you hear the good news? The jury found me not guilty. They found the evidence of my intentions to be far too compelling to convict me,” Rhysand said, sliding his hands into his pockets. His deep violet eyes scanned over the wedding party. “As for my objection . . .”

“Shut up,” Tamlin spat.

The minister raised his hand. “I’m required to hear it,” he said, though he looked a little green.

“You see, when we were in Russia, Feyre darling promised me a date. Unfortunately we’ve both been a little occupied in the past several months. And, as it would feel terribly wrong to take another man’s wife on a date, well . . . I simply had to interrupt.”

“You didn’t,” Tamlin seethed.

“I might remind you that you wouldn’t even have a bride if it wasn’t for me, Springer,” Rhysand said, raising his voice to address the whole audience. “If it weren’t for my superior First Aid skills, she would have died of infection in the Ural Mountains before she could have saved you or anyone else.” His finger rose to trace the raised scar on my upper left arm, and I jerked away. Rhysand glanced at me, his expression hardening. “And seeing as poor Feyre is in the midst of a rather severe panic attack, it seems unwise to continue with the ceremony anyway.”

Another round of fireworks, this one rapid-fire like rounds of a machine gun, sounded off over the river, and I could feel the drops of cold sweat on my brow. I glanced at Tamlin but the image of him swam before my eyes. I had become very small in my own body, drowning in my memories and the panic and the horrors of what had happened to me . . .

“Forcing her to continue at this point would be coercion, don’t you agree?” Rhysand pressed. “I think she presently needs medical attention more than a wedding. Fortunately, I have a doctor in my car with me. If you’ll allow me to escort her, we’ll have her right as rain in a moment. Then perhaps you can continue with this precious event.”

I was shaking so hard I thought I would fall right out of my dress. My knees knocked together and I began to sink to the ground, but Rhysand’s arm looped through mine and kept me upright.

“We can get a doctor,” Tamlin protested. “You’re not taking her anywhere.”

“I think we ought to leave that up to Feyre,” Rhys said smoothly. “Doctor now, or doctor later?”

I buried deep within myself to find my voice. “D-doctor . . .” I stammered. Later. Doctor later. Finish the wedding. “N-now.”

And then I collapsed into a dead faint.

-

2130 04 JUL 2021. McLean, Virginia, United States of America.

I woke up to silence.

I jerked awake to find myself in the back of a car with tinted windows, my tulle skirts taking up most of the room. The space that my dress did not occupy was inhabited instead by Rhysand Knight, who sat with his ankle crossed over one knee, observing me out of the corner of his eyes.

“Ah, there she is,” he said, shifting so both his feet were on the floor. “Do you have your wits about you, now?”

“Where am I?” I demanded, pressing against the car door.

Rhys looked out the window and nodded. “Someplace quiet.”

The car came to a stop and Rhys got out before I could make him stay. I almost fell backward when he was suddenly opening the door behind me and helping me out. I shoved him away, my heels almost catching on the cobblestone driveway below me. I looked up and around, and my stomach dropped when I saw perhaps the most beautiful home I had ever seen--stone walls and a gabled roof with a chimney, large front doors atop a marble porch. To my right was a matching garage, but around us I could see no neighbors. The hissing of the fireworks was far off in the distance, but the hair on my arms still rose at the sound of it.

“Welcome to my home,” Rhys said, gesturing to the doors.

“I’m not going inside until you tell me what happened,” I snapped.

“You nearly ran away from your own wedding, darling,” Rhys said. “Had a nasty panic attack. You requested to see a doctor and I obliged, but he suggested you be taken far from any Independence Day celebrations for your own well-being. When I informed him that my residence wa soundproof, he approved the location.”

“How dare you--”

Rhysand shook his head. “I certainly missed that look on your face.” He stepped a little closer and I wobbled on the cobblestones. “You’re welcome, you know.”

“For what?

“For giving you an easy way out of that disaster of a ceremony. My reputation is already shot to bits, so if your delightful producer wants to cast me as the villain in your TV drama, it’s no skin off my nose.”

“I didn’t say I wanted out--”

“Feyre.” Rhys cut me off with a word and a look. “If I hadn’t shown up you’d probably have jumped into the Potomac. At least I spared you the scene of saying no to Tamlin in such a dramatic fashion. Perhaps, once you’re all sorted, you can blame it all on the PTSD and pretend that there wasn’t part of you that hated every moment of that.” His eyes scanned me up and down, sneering in distaste at my hair, my makeup, my clothes.

“Don’t pretend like you know me,” I spat. In the distance, fireworks hissed and crackled, and my shoulders tensed in response.

Rhys’s voice was soft. “It’s quieter inside.”

I wanted to defy him, wanted to insist that he take me back, but the panic was still fresh--I could still touch it if I wanted to. It lingered at the edges of my mind and I could see it like a halo of red in my periphery. So I hauled up my skirts and stormed across the cobblestones and into the house. I slammed the door shut behind me but Rhys had already made it inside. I ignored the stairs and took a swift right--and then paused as the house opened before me.

Cathedral ceilings, wide and open, with a massive window overlooking a lush, green backyard with a narrow swimming pool. A grand piano was set before the window and several lush couches were positioned throughout the room. Delicate glass orbs dangled from the mosaic tiled ceiling high above, filling the room with a gentle, soothing light.

And it was silent.

My shoulders instantly relaxed as I soaked in the room. It was so different than I’d expected from someone like Rhysand. I had expected his place to be the epitome of modernity--cold, stark, in tones of black and white. Not this classic elegance.

“It’s much better in the quiet, isn’t it?” Rhysand said from behind me, and I jumped. “I’ve been dreading Independence Day since returning home. It’s about as awful as I expected. Don’t you agree?”

“It was fine until you showed up,” I said with gritted teeth.

“Don’t lie to yourself, Feyre,” Rhysand said, his words edged. “You lied to yourself and told yourself you’d be fine today, when you knew there’d be fireworks, knew it would trigger you--”

“I didn’t!” I argued. “I thought . . . I thought I’d be fine.”

Rhys’s upper lips twitched. “Thought your love for Tamlin would conquer the trauma? How romantic.”

“Shut up,” I spat. “Does he know I’m here?”

“The doctor has assured him of your safety,” Rhys said.

Am I safe here?”

Rhysand straightened and his face took on a cool, even expression. “Yes, Feyre. You’re utterly safe.” A familiar sadness flickered in his eyes, but it was gone before I could comment on it. “Take the stairs up a flight. Your bedroom is at the end of the hall on the right.”

“My--bedroom?”

“Did you expect me to make you sleep on the couch?”

Yes, actually, I had, but I didn’t answer him.

“One man does not need nine bedrooms.”

Nine?

Rhys laughed at the look on my face. “What can I say? I was a little enamored with my newly-acquired wealth a few years ago. Feel free to bathe, make yourself comfortable. And take off that ridiculous dress. You look--nothing like yourself. In the morning we’ll eat and see about returning you to your beloved.” He turned and began to make his way out of the room in the direction of the kitchen. “I’m willing to accept your thanks at any time, you know,” he said over his shoulder.

The red that had been lingering at the edges of my vision flooded me, but it was not panic. No--instead, it was rage, and without knowing what I was doing I seized the shoe off of my foot and hauled it at the back of his head.

Rhys’s hand flew to the back of his head and he turned back to me, eyes wide and expression outraged. He spotted me with my other shoe in my hand, ready to throw it. He snarled, “I dare you.

I was never one to let a dare go unanswered. I threw the shoe at him, but I was surprised to see him lash out his hand with surprising swiftness and catch it mid-air, throwing it into the fireplace at the back of the room in the next smooth motion. Then he looked at me, flexing his jaw as his eyes sparked. “Good,” was all he said.

I growled in frustration and stormed up the stairs, taking the hall to the right as instructed. It led across a balcony overlooking the room below. I couldn’t see Rhys, but I heard an unfamiliar female voice chirp, “Well that went well.”

Rhys’s snarl had me hurrying off to the bedroom, where I promptly threw myself on the bed and cried.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

0700 05 SEP 2021. McLean, Virginia, United States of America

I blinked awake, head pounding, as I tried to figure out where on earth I was. Pink light filled the air, and I was sprawled on a couch. A familiar couch.

I rose into a sitting position and rubbed my eyes. When I pulled my hand away from my face, my eyes fell on Rhysand, lounging in an armchair opposite the couch. His ankle was crossed over his knee, and when he saw me wake up, he put both feet on the ground and leaned forward, bracing his forearms on his thighs.

“What happened?” I asked, my voice hoarse.

“Another panic attack. This one made your display at the wedding seem like a calm, reasonable response.” Rhys’s mouth twitched. “You surprised everyone when you seized one of Ianthe’s precious cameras and sent it right through the patio doors.”

My heart clenched painfully. “I did that? Wh-why?”

Rhys’s lips were pale and his nostrils flared. “What do you remember?”

I thought back to the past days, trying to remember why my body ached so much and why I felt so hollow. The neckline of my sweater slipped off my bony shoulder and I pulled it back up. “He locked me up.” My stomach was hollowed out as I remembered what had happened. Tamlin was about to go on a campaign tour for one of his father’s political allies. Tired of being stuck at home all the time, I’d asked to go with. Tamlin had refused. I’d asked again, and still nothing. I’d begged, desperate to get out of the house and do something, see something other than the fenced-in acres of the Springer property. But when I’d grabbed a bag and tried to follow him out the door, I’d found it locked--from the inside. I’d watched him walk away from me. And then, when I’d been trying to get out, Secretary Springer’s private security team had stepped in front of the glass doors, facing me.

I’d seen their firearms and their cold, hard faces, and that was when the panic had set in. Then I’d started throwing things. Ianthe and the other crew members had tried to calm me, but I’d fought all of them off, flailing and screaming, until at last I’d grabbed the only thing strong enough to break down the door--one of the cameras.

I’d booked it out into the yard, but I hadn’t made it far before the panic gripped my limbs and I couldn’t move for the shaking. I’d heard sirens, soft, gentle voices belonging to Alis and someone else familiar . . . I couldn’t remember much of anything else.

“Did I hurt any--”

“No. You weren’t aiming for anything but the windows, and despite being out of practice your aim is still decent.

“Mor was on duty,” Rhys continued. “Alis called her along with the paramedics. At the hospital she advocated to keep you from being returned to Spring Valley. She volunteered her own home, and thanks to her outstanding record, they released you to her through the program.”

That’s right--Mor, Rhys’s bubbly cousin, was a volunteer for a women-in-crisis organization. I wasn’t totally sure of how all the legal aspects of this worked, nor did I understand why Mor had been allowed to take me, but my head hurt too much to try to wrap my mind around it. “Her home . . .”

Rhys gestured vaguely to the house. “This place is hers, too. Her name is on the deed. And, as I said before, I don’t need nine bedrooms. Several years ago I opened it up as a safe house for those who needed a temporary place or shelter. Of course, with all the drama of the past two years, the organization has been reluctant to affiliate with me. But they made a special exception for Mor and you in this case.”

This case. I was . . . I was a woman in crisis.

Tamlin had locked me up. And Ianthe had let him. “They locked me up in that house.”

“I know,” Rhys said, and his voice was low and vicious--wrath not directed at me. “Our little link was going haywire.” He gestured to the tablet on the table between us. It was connected to my own device tucked into a bracelet that Tamlin had given me. It measured my vital signs, vibrated when I needed to do breathing exercises to calm my panic. And when I slept, it was programmed to stimulate certain parts of my brain to reduce the nightmares. The nightmares hadn’t gone away, but . . . it had helped.

Rhysand had designed it. Not specifically for me. But I’d learned after coming here the first time that his company designed more than communication tech--he was on the cutting edge of medical technology as well, and in the time he’d spent under house arrest during his trial, he’d perfected this device designed specifically for trauma survivors or those with fragile vitals. It wasn’t on the market yet, but it would be by the early next year.

This summer had been . . . strange.

Before Rhys had returned me to Spring Valley after I’d recovered after my wedding, he’d given me the business card of the psychiatrist he’d been using. He’d promised that this person was the best, that they wouldn’t treat me differently because I was well-known or because of politics. He’d said it might help. The doctor would be willing to meet me wherever I wanted, and Rhys had said that I was welcome in his house whether he was there or not. And . . . it had seemed like the only way to get out of Tamlin’s house at all. So I’d arranged to meet with the psychiatrist at Rhys’s house, in a quiet neighborhood on the other side of the Potomac. It had been the psychiatrist to suggest wearing the bracelet, so he could monitor my stressors and triggers and help me find ways to avoid them. When he’d asked if there was anyone I wanted to share that information with, I’d surprised myself by saying he could share it with Rhysand.

Because Rhys was probably the only other person who knew what I was going through.

Tamlin had been angry when I’d told him I was seeing a professional. He’d said it would look bad, like he couldn’t take care of me, like we weren’t all right. I’d said that it had become pretty apparent to everyone at the wedding that I wasn’t all right. And that if he wanted to marry someone who was, he should choose someone else.

Tamlin had thrown the new painting kit he’d gotten me across the room. And a shard of glass had cut my cheek.

He’d apologized profusely, in tears, promising it would never happen again, but that night I’d gotten a call from my doctor to check in, when he’d noticed the spike in my heart rate. I hadn’t told him what had happened. Hadn’t been able to even admit it to myself.

But now . . .

“I have nowhere else to go,” I said quietly to Rhys. A question and a plea.

“Stay here for however long you want. Stay here forever, if you feel like it.”

“I--I need to go back at some point.” With Tamlin, Ianthe, the show . . . I couldn’t just disappear.

“Say the word, and it’s done.” I knew from the look in his eyes that he hated the idea of me going back, but I knew he meant it--knew he’d take me back if I asked.

Back . . . back to cameras in my face all the time and nothing to do but float around the house and entertain politicians’ wives and vomit up my guts in the middle of the night . . .

“We had a conversation this summer,” Rhys reminded me, leaning back in his chair, “about the company. I . . . the trial, the war, it’s all affected how I’m seen. I don’t care for myself, personally, but it’s affecting the company. Mor might be co-owner, but even that’s not enough to make others want to do business with me. And . . . there’s so much I still want to do. With the medical technology, especially. I offered you a job. Working for me, helping me get the technology into the hands of the people who need it. Hospitals, veterans’ programs . . . for better or worse, people look up to you, and they would listen to you. Have you given any thought to that?”

I had, but I was reluctant to say so. It was hard to imagine me being an advocate for anyone or anything when I could barely advocate for myself, but . . . it would be something to do. A use. And I knew from experience that Rhysand’s devices did help, and it would be a shame if his reputation kept them from helping the great number of people that they could. Maybe . . .

“I’m not sure I’d be any good,” I admitted. “I’m a bit of a mess right now. You know better than anyone. But . . . I’m not going back to Spring Valley.” I was standing at a crossroads. Both were dark and foggy, but one darkness I knew, and it had almost claimed my life. At least the other path . . . at least I could choose it.

Rhys nodded, his expression free of judgment. “The offer stands, until you’re ready to accept it. I’d pay you, of course. But you’re welcome to stay here until you decide. I have to head off for a few days for some meetings with investors. I’ll be back at the end of the week.”

The thought of staying here all alone for a week suddenly seemed horrifying. “Take me with you,” I blurted.

Rhys had already stood and was heading out of the room, but he turned back and said, “You should rest.”

“I’ve rested enough.” I stood and swayed on my feet a bit, and I realized I couldn’t remember when I’d last eaten. “Take me along. I’ll stay out of the way. Just . . . please.”

Rhys stepped toward me, coming so close that my breath caught in my chest. “I’ll need you to sign confidentiality agreements. I’ve had enough with people using my technology for . . . malevolent purposes.” His violet eyes flashed and I knew he was remembering what I was--the torture he’d been forced to perform for Amarantha, using his own technology. “If you have a problem with that, you should stay here.”

“I’ll sign whatever you need me to. And I won’t say a word about anything.”

Rhys considered me for a moment, and then he gave me a half-smile. “The car leaves in ten minutes. If you want to freshen up, go ahead. We’ll get food on the way.”

“Where are we going?” I asked.

Rhys smiled, and it was almost blinding. “To New York--the City that Never Sleeps.”

-

1700 05 SEP 2021. New York City, New York, United States of America

I stood on the balcony of Rhysand’s apartment in Manhattan, looking out over the elegant, brightly-lit skyline. It was so much more than I’d ever expected--I’d never been in a city so large. D.C. was low the the ground, not high like New York, and that was the largest city I’d ever seen. Before then, I’d only lived in a rural mountainside town in central Virginia, where it took at least an hour to drive to any remotely developed area. Our father had moved us out there after my mother had died from her injuries in a car accident when I was eight. The crash had wrecked my dad’s leg, and his disability pay hadn’t been much. He could have tried to work and get more money, but he never had. Instead, he’d tried and failed again and again to make a business out of his wood carvings, but where we lived, there were plenty of better artists and tradesmen who kept him from ever succeeding. My sisters hadn’t known what to do--Nesta did the laundry and that was about it, while Elain might help with dishes or dusting. The rest--the hard work--had been up to me.

I’d started hunting when I was fourteen. First setting traps for rabbits and squirrels in the yard, then practicing archery until I was good enough to try my hand at deer hunting. I ignored the signs on posted property and hunted wherever I knew deer traveled--conservation laws didn’t do me much good when we were near starving and Dad never fixed the car.

This . . . New York. It was so different. Beautiful. There was life here, color. Music.

“Are you ready?” Rhys asked from behind me. I turned to see him adjusting his sleeves. His jaw was set, but his posture was carefully composed. He was taking me to dinner . . . dinner with Mor and some of their other companions. These were the people, Rhys had said, that I would have to get used to if I accepted his offer. This was a test for them, to see if I could handle it. Handle them.

They weren’t . . . safe people, Rhys had said. They were like him, like me . . . scarred, damaged, each in their own ways. But they were the most important people in his life.

I was dressed in a midnight-blue gown with a plunging neckline Rhys had provided for me. I would have thought that he had selected it for his own pleasure, but when I’d looked in the mirror . . .

I was so gaunt. Frail. Haunted. I didn’t look elegant in the dress--I looked like a joke. Like a stick figure with bones jutting out at all the wrong angles. I had seen mannequins in the store with better proportions than me. But I didn’t have anything else to wear.

I turned back to the view, clutching the railing with my thin hands. I leaned out a little, wondering casually what it might be like to just tip right over, to fall, to feel the night wind ripping up around me until the darkness swallowed me whole--

Feyre.”

I blinked and Rhys grabbed my wrist and pulled me back from the railing. He turned me to face him and I was startled by the intense look on his face. “Don’t think like that,” he said urgently. “Don’t ever think like that.”

“How do you know what I was thinking?” I asked softly.

Rhys just looked out over the city, his lips pressed tight. “I had to lock this balcony and give Amren the key for months because I used to think exactly the same thoughts.”

My blood chilled. “Oh.”

“They’re waiting upstairs,” Rhys said quietly. There was a restaurant was few stories up, and Rhys had made a private reservation. I allowed him to link our arms together and lead me into the elevator. “Out with it.”

“Excuse me?”

“You say what’s on your mind--one thing. And I’ll say one, too.” When I didn’t answer, Rhys said, “I’m thinking that those two years I spent in Russia, I would sometimes let myself dream of being back here, back home, but I never actually thought I’d see it again. I’m thinking that I wish I had been the one to kill her. And I’m thinking that I never let anyone know it, but the thought of spending decades in prison was perhaps even more horrible than the thought of letting Amarantha kill me.”

I was stiff, hardly able to breathe, at the weight of his confession. It was so much--I had to give him something in return. “I’m thinking I must have been a fool in love to let Tamlin control my life as closely as he did--both before and after Russia. I’m thinking that there’s so much I was never allowed to know about, ‘for my own well-being,’ and I might have been content never to ask. I’m thinking . . .” I swallowed over the hard lump in my throat. “I’m thinking I was a lonely, hopeless person, and I might have fallen in love with the first thing that showed me a hint of kindness and safety. And I’m thinking that maybe he knew that. And maybe that worked for who I was before. Maybe it doesn’t work for who--what I am now.”

I waited, nerves pricking my skin, for Rhysand’s reaction to my selfish, ungrateful, cold words. But he was as nonjudgmental as always. “That was five. Looks like I owe you two thoughts.”

The elevator dinged and we were greeted by the hostess. We were escorted to the private lounge, and I paused at the door, looking at the other people already meandering in the room. Rhys grinned and wandered over to the two hulking men in dark suits. I’d seen them come by the apartment earlier, but I hadn’t had the energy to meet them. The slightly larger of the two grinned at me now and said, “Come on, Feyre. We don’t bit. Unless you ask us to.”

I was surprised by the joke and wandered further into the room, subtly noting that the two men were both incredibly handsome. Like Rhys. They both had dark hair, like Rhys, though their skin was slightly darker. Rhys gestured to the second man and said, “This is Azriel Zelenko, my brother and governmental liaison.”

“You’re related?” I asked as I shook Azriel’s unusually scarred hand.

“Not technically,” Rhys clarified. “My mother adopted both Cassian and Azriel from Ukraine after she divorced my father. I didn’t always live with them growing up, but we became thick as thieves, nonetheless.”

“Eventually. After we beat the hell out of each other for a while,” Cassian snorted.

“What do you do?” I asked Cassian.

Cassian shrugged. “Former special ops. Now I work private security for Rhys.” A discreet shudder ran through me at private security as I thought of Secretary Springer’s men.

“Cassian also specializes in pissing people off, so . . . good luck,” Azriel said smoothly. His words were very slightly accented, whereas Cassian had no trace of accent. It seemed rude to mention it.

“Azriel’s job is similar to what yours will be, only he works with far less pleasant people,” Rhys said. “And frankly, it’s because of him I’m not in prison right now.”

“All right, no gloomy talk.” Mor strode up behind me and tapped my shoulder before sweeping me into a hug. “It’s good to see you, Feyre. I don’t know about you, but I’m starving, so I vote we eat.” She herded me to a seat at the table behind her, and I was thankful for her easy presence. I hadn’t had a chance to thank her for the other day, but now didn’t seem like the time. She also didn’t seem like she expected thanks.

Mor glanced up and smirked when another woman joined us and sat across from me. She was several inches shorter than me and looked like she was from southeast Asia--though I didn’t know the differences enough to guess which country. Her hair was cropped short and she was loaded with jewelry. She thanked Rhys for his most recent gift--a necklace--and despite the cool and even tone of her voice, I was on edge around her.

“Feyre, this is Amren. She works with the CIA. Everything else is classified,” Rhys said.

My lips parted in surprise, but Amren cut me off. “Friends with his father. That’s all you need to know . . . for now.”

I didn’t dare argue.

The food was served and the mood in the room reached an almost comfortable tone. Cassian teased Rhys, who teased him back, and I was surprised to see how . . . calm Rhys was. Not a cool and composed businessman, or a desperate man trying to survive. Just . . . Rhys.

I learned tidbits about everyone at the meal, besides Amren, of course. Mor, I was startled to learn, was none other than Morrigan Keir, the Disney Channel star I’d watched when I was a kid before we’d become too poor to afford cable. Her show had been outrageously popular, but after it had cancelled, she’d gone the way of many child stars and had . . . issues. I remembered only the vaguest details, but Mor skipped over them to tell me that she’d gotten a job with Rhysand, caught her stride, and helped build the company, becoming co-owner five years ago. She’d run it while Rhys had been in captivity, and in her limited free time she volunteered and donated to the women-in-crisis organization that had helped me out of Spring Valley.

Cassian and Azriel were both ex-military, though most of their service had occurred during the War in Afghanistan. “Inconvenient,” Cassian said, “since with a decent tan the both of us regularly get ‘randomly selected.’” They’d served only one tour each in Eastern Europe before Azriel had been reassigned stateside and later entered the civilian ranks, while Cassian’s unit had been disbanded for administrative reasons. Frustrated by the “political bullshit,” Cassian had retired too and returned to work for Rhys. I frantically tried to do the math in my head and estimated that the two of them were in their early thirties, slightly older older than Rhys and Mor, who were in their late twenties. Amren’s age was impossible to guess.

At one time, knowing they were all around a decade older than me might have intimidated me, but I had been through so much at this point that it hardly phased me.

“So, none of you were in Russia?” I asked to clarify. The theater in Eastern Europe hadn’t moved to Russia until right before I’d been deployed.

Mor bit her lip and stiffened. “No,” Cassian said, “but we all know what happened. The truth. And believe us, Feyre. Every single one of us is grateful for what you did. Soldier to soldier.” He locked eyes with me, and for the very first time since getting back, I didn’t feel compelled to shrug off the thanks, to blush and demur and pretend like it was nothing. Because Cassian knew. He and Azriel both had seen hell in Afghanistan and Eastern Europe and who knew where else. Their thanks wasn’t for the romanticized version of events that the media had spun together. They were thanking me for the truth--the gritty, dirty truth.

And though that comforted me, I still felt like I didn’t deserve it. They might know, might understand what it had been like to kill those people . . . but that didn’t make it any easier for me to deal with. “Thank you,” I said quietly. I glanced at Rhysand, wanting to ask what the truth really was, how Azriel had kept him out of prison . . . but I didn’t want to ruin the night. And I didn’t think I was ready to know.

Mor gracefully guided the topic of conversation back to safer topics, tales of Cassian, Azriel, and Rhys growing up. I asked about Rhys’s mother, and he smiled softly. “She was born and raised in Ukraine, but wanted to come here for fashion school, since her sewing skills were so good. Then she met and married my father, got her citizenship, had me and my sister . . . an American love story. But the marriage didn’t last, and my sister and I jumped back and forth between my father in Virginia and my mother here. She didn’t adopt these idiots until after the divorce, so they didn’t have to move around.” I didn’t dare ask about Rhys’s sister, why she wasn’t here.

“I was eight when Viktoriya adopted me,” Cassian said. “I still remember Ukraine. Not gonna lie . . . it wasn’t great, even then. Azriel came along a year later.” Azriel nodded stiffly, but didn’t elaborate.

They asked me about my story, and I told them, about the car accident, the poverty, the hunting, all the way up until my deployment. Cassian was impressed that I’d taught myself to hunt. “What about fighting? Ever done much of that, outside of Basic?”

I shook my head.

“Good. You’ve found yourself a teacher, then.” Cassian grinned. “I’ll help you get back in shape. And Azriel will show you the ins and outs of negotiation.”

That sounded . . . nice. But--“You don’t think it’ll send a message? Me, helping here, after . . . well, with what everyone thinks? The show? It’ll reflect on Secretary Springer, won’t it?”

The table rattled as someone kicked it under the table. Rhys’s knuckles were white around his fork. The sudden rage on his face was . . . unexpected.

“Let me tell you two things,” Mor said, making me look away from Rhysand, “as someone who has perhaps been in your shoes before. One, you have left Spring Valley, and the organization I am part of is publicly advocating on your behalf to release you from your contract with the show. That sends a message on its own.” She took a deep breath. “Two, I once lived in a world where everyone’s eyes were on me, where everyone else’s opinion mattered. It suffocated me, nearly broke me. So you’ll understand me, Feyre, when I say that I know what you feel, and I know what they tried to do to you, and that with enough courage, you can say to hell with a reputation.” Her voice became gentler, and the tension in the room faded with it. “You do what you love, what you need.”

I nodded and thought it all over, amazed at what she was saying, what she was offering. Freedom. No one controlling my life but me. I hadn’t realized just how far off such a thing had seemed before. And now it was right in front of me. I looked at Rhys and said, “I accept the job. I’ll do it--help the people you want to help. Make things right.”

Rhys’s eyes, which had grown dark and cold, suddenly gleamed again, and he lifted his glass of wine into the air. “Excellent. You start tomorrow.”

Chapter Text

 

0800 12 SEP 2021. New York City, New York, United States of America

I sat with my legs crossed in front of me on the couch, nursing a hot mug of coffee in my hands. My stomach was full of buttered croissant and fruit, though I hadn’t even eaten all of what I’d chosen out of the kitchen. My appetite simply wasn’t what it used to be, but my doctor had told me to make note of and appreciate the little milestones--such as the fact that I was up before noon today.

I didn’t really have the option of sleeping so late anymore now that Mor had been coming by every morning to teach me the ins and outs of the company, the products, and so forth. She brought the products and files to the apartment, saying there was no real need for me to come to the offices for such boring stuff. So I’d gotten into the habit of waking earlier, which lined up with Rhys’s habit as well. I would often find him in a chair before the fireplace in his apartment, the television playing the news in the background, while he scanned through online newspapers and Twitter over his breakfast and coffee. We never spoke, but that was good. I’d never been a morning person.

The only alteration in this habit had been the day before, when the television had been quiet and he’d exchanged his tablet for some files instead. I’d looked at the date on my watch and understood immediately.

September 11th.

“I wasn’t sure whether I’d find you watching the coverage or not,” I’d admitted as I sank into my usual place.

“If you’d like to turn it on, you can,” he’d said, not looking up.

I shook my head. I couldn’t watch it, either. I was too young to remember the event itself--though I was sure Rhys likely had some memory of it--but the memorials and the display of somber patriotism soured my stomach after my experience in the military. It all just seemed so surface-level. Never forget, they said every year. And yet we’d been in almost constant war for twenty years. I knew far too many soldiers who’d felt forgotten in Russia and Eastern Europe. Plenty who still felt forgotten now that they’d returned home. That was one of the reasons I’d accepted the job Rhys had offered me.

“I used to go to the memorial,” Rhys had said after being quiet for a while, “but they don’t want me there anymore. Too much controversy.” I’d flinched, but he was right. The kind of patriotism that was trotted out on September 11th didn’t include the kind of patriotism that involved making hard choices and compromises. The ugly side of patriotism. I found myself thankful that I wasn’t in Spring Valley right now--I would almost certainly have been required to go to the ceremony at the Pentagon. The salutes, the moment of silence . . . it would have all been too much.

“Is that hard for you?” I had asked. “Not going?”

Rhys had shrugged one shoulder. “I can’t say I don’t understand, but . . . yes. I was here in the city with my mother the day it happened. I was only . . . seven or eight, I think? Katie was still a toddler. It’s cliche to say it’s hard to describe, but it’s true. I’ll never forget it.” He’d smirked at the words, the irony in them. “But I don’t have to be out there to remember.” He’d cocked his head and looked me over. “What about you?”

“Me?”

“Yes. As a soldier, is it . . . different for you?”

I shrugged. “I was too young to remember. I learned about it all in school, but . . . after I joined up I figured out the context, everything that led to where I was at that point and . . . yes, I suppose it is different for me. But I don’t want to be out there. Especially not now.”

Rhys had only nodded and turned back to his files.

This morning, the news was on again and Rhys was scrolling through his feed. I wasn’t paying much attention until I heard the news anchor say, “Interesting claims about Rhysand Knight and the role he played in Russia.” I snapped my head up and glanced at Rhys, but he only looked up at me with a raised eyebrow.

“Agent Carver, could you walk us through your theory briefly? The nation is aware that Rhysand Knight was cleared of treason charges, but your insight as a former CIA operative has led you to some interesting conclusions.”

“Indeed, Megyn,” said the guest--a man with dark hair and blue eyes who seemed oddly baby-faced for his supposed years of experience in central intelligence. “The details of Knight’s involvement in Russia are sealed up pretty tight and it will probably take some time for the public to get all the details, but the speculation that he was doing more than humanitarian work in Ukraine has been confirmed.”

“And what was he doing in Ukraine?”

“He was equipping America’s allies with technology of his specifically designed for infiltration and espionage.”

“The public was under the impression that while imprisoned by General Konstantinovna’s forces, Knight aided her by providing the Russians with similar technology, but the investigation has proved that this is not the case?”

“Correct, Megyn. It seems he did provide them technology, but it was inferior technology to what he had provided the allies--in fact, it was directly linked to the allies’ technology through a hidden server he installed somewhere on the premises.”

I looked at Rhysand, but his expression was unreadable.

“Further,” Agent Carver continued, “this link allowed allies to know precise movements of Russian forces and eventually know exactly what was going on in the compound.”

“Wait,” the anchor interrupted. “If this is true, why did the allies not make use of this intel? Why did Russia continue to have the upperhand for much of that time?”

Agent Carver’s smile was cold. “Perhaps because Secretary Springer and General Jurian ignored the intel to deliberately lengthen the war.”

The anchor spluttered, “That’s a rather outrageous claim, Agent Carver,” she said. “You’re suggesting that the Secretary had the intel required to rescue the son of a U.S. Secretary and didn’t use it? By this logic, you’re practically suggesting that he allowed his own son and Private Archeron to be captured!”

My blood ran cold and I could not tear my eyes away from the screen.

“I think we should be asking fewer questions about Rhysand Knight, who risked his life to provide crucial intel to American allies, and more questions of Secretary Springer, whose past business dealings with Russia and dubious reasons for pushing this war make me, personally, a little skeptical about his motivations.”

“Well, thank you for your time, Agent Carver, and we’ll leave our audience to judge. We’ll be back in a moment.”

The TV clicked off as I stared at Rhysand. “Is all of that true?” I demanded.

“More or less,” Rhysand said smoothly, setting aside his tablet and reclining in his chair. “Did you think that my distaste for Secretary Springer was mere political disagreement?”

His father had been Secretary Springer’s political enemy, but the utter hate Rhys had expressed for the secretary while we were in Russia did seem to indicate more than that. “I didn’t give it much thought.”

“Understandable,” Rhys admitted. “You had other things on your mind. But yes. I was not in Ukraine merely for humanitarian work, and I did equip the allies. And the technology I provided Amarantha was, in most cases, inferior. I can’t pretend they didn’t make use of it anyway--you saw that for yourself--but I did manage to link it back to the forces in Ukraine.”

“How soon?”

“Three months after I’d been captured.”

I could barely breathe. “You were there for two years. They . . . they ignored your intelligence for two years? For what reason? A political rivalry?”

“Money,” Rhysand said, his words edged. “Secretary Springer was a defense contractor during the war in Iraq. Made most of his money that way. He supposedly sold all of his holdings when he was selected for the president’s cabinet, but . . . it seems he had some interests tucked away.”

“How do you know about this?”

“As I told you in Russia--I pay attention. Amarantha knew Secretary Springer from before the war . . . and I have reason to believe they didn’t fall out of touch once the war was declared.”

Rage lashed through me and I leapt off the couch. “And he wanted you put away for treason!” I started pacing, wrapping my arms around my torso. “Are you going to do anything about it?”

“There’s not much I can do right now,” Rhys said. “He’s still too powerful. My reputation is wrecked and no one will want to listen to me. All I have is people like Carver, whom most people view as a kook. Springer is working very hard to keep the intelligence I brought back suppressed. That’s why Azriel’s job is so difficult. Red tape everywhere. Amren is helping in any way she can, but . . . it’s not easy.”

“So . . . they’re just going to get away with it?”

“I hope not,” Rhys said. “But for now, I just want to focus on my company, exactly like I told you. Let Azriel and Amren do their work, and wait for the tide to change.” Rhys drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. “I haven’t entirely discarded the idea of running for office myself in a few years. To see if I can make a change that way. But all of this has to clear, first. Which is why I asked for your help.”

I stopped pacing and fixed my eyes on him. “Then what do you need me to do first?”

Rhys grinned. “I need you to charm the stilettos of Whitley Weaver.”

“Who?” I asked blankly.

Rhys gracefully stood to his feet and winked at me. “You’ll see.”

1900 01 OCT 2021. New York City, New York, United States of America

Whitley Weaver, it turned out, was a former friend of Rhys’s mother, Viktoriya, and ran one of the largest fashion empires in New York City. She had massive influence, and her endorsement of Rhysand’s company would be a major step in restoring its reputation, if not his.

There were a few problems, however. The first was that she had hated Rhysand’s father, and tended to view Rhysand with the same lens. The controversy about Russia did not help one bit, so Rhys sent me on my own to meet with Whitley Weaver, armed with plenty of arguments and petitions to hopefully win Whitley to our side. Rhys also wired me so he could hear our conversation, even if he couldn’t communicate with me.

“Are you kidding, Rhys?” Cassian had argued. “She’ll eat her alive!”

“She can handle it,” Rhys had insisted.

By the time it was all over, I wasn’t sure what exactly I’d managed. I had expected to go in and give a presentation, a totally professional exchange, but Whitley had had other ideas. She’d insisted that I talk about Russia--what I’d seen of Rhys there, my interactions with him so far--and had asked prying questions about the bracelet I wore on my tattooed hand, asking exactly how it helped with my specific symptoms. It had felt like being cracked open like a crab leg. I had needed to excuse myself to the restroom once to compose myself, and I’d thought about leaving--I hadn’t come to talk about myself. But I’d thought of Rhys, and how this was my first real test to prove that I could do what he needed me to do. I’d dried my tears and marched back into her office to demand that she offer support--financial or simply verbal--to Knight Tech.

Whitley Weaver had just given me a cold smile and reached into a locked drawer in her desk. She’d pulled out a small velvet bag and slid it across the glass surface to me. “Give that to Rhysand. It’s my answer.” And she’d dismissed me without another word.

I returned to the apartment and gave the bag to Rhys, and the smile on his face was bigger than any I’d ever seen him give. “Feyre . . . you’re my salvation,” he said.

“What did she give you?” Mor demanded from behind him.

He opened the velvet bag to reveal a ring box, and inside was an elegant star sapphire. Mor whistled in disbelief.

“My mother’s ring,” Rhys said in explanation. “She gave it to Whitley after the divorce because she was too upset to keep it. Whitley was supposed to return it when I graduated college, but she never did. Claimed I still needed to earn it. Thanks to you, I’ve earned it--and her endorsement.” His eyes glimmered as he snapped the box shut and then treated us to drinks at Rita’s, his favorite club. Later that night, he led me back to my bedroom.

“What you did today was incredible,” he said softly. “I was monitoring you the whole time. I know your panic almost got you. But . . . you remembered. You fought. And you spoke up for yourself. For me. I would have loved to see you talk to Ianthe like that.”

The praise soured with the addendum. “What, precisely, is your issue with her?”

Rhys grimaced. “For one thing, I find she lacks integrity. The religion she spouts on about is merely a tool to her. She doesn’t mean a word of it, doesn’t live by it.”

“What do you mean? She went to church every--”

“That doesn’t mean anything. She’s interested in influence and power. Even when she was young, her supposed faith was a marketing tool in her career. I met her when I went to visit Mor, during . . . everything. She was of the previous generation of shows, but her fame had not followed her after her career with Disney ended. So she spent all her time bemoaning Mor’s downward spiral to anyone who would listen, making herself look better . . . all the while using and abusing anyone she felt like.”

I bit my lip but didn’t answer. That did sound like Ianthe.

“She set her sights on me after meeting me during a visit to Mor. I didn’t own Knight Tech yet but my father was powerful. She sent all these rumors swirling around the internet that we were dating, or that I was begging for her but she kept saying no because I wanted sex and it ‘went against her beliefs.’” Rhys snorted and shook his head. “It all bounced off of me, thankfully, especially after her email was hacked and her scheming was found out.” He ran his hand through his ebony hair. “Sounds like she’s managed to bury it all pretty well.”

I nodded mutely. “What happened to Mor?”

Rhys’s violet eyes bored into mine, and I had trouble breathing. “I’ll let her tell you.” I looked away, my head aching with all that I’d learned about the people I’d once trusted.

I looked up to ask Rhys more, but he had vanished.

-

0800 21 NOV 2021. New York City, New York, United States of America

I was beyond surprised when Rhys had told me that he wanted to invest in my sister’s company and had already made all the arrangements to do so. The only trick left was getting Nesta to agree.

“It’s lucky Thanksgiving is coming up, isn’t it?” Rhys had purred.

“So, you’re trying to torment me. Got it. At least we’re on the same page now,” I’d snapped.

He’d cocked his head and observed me. “Is it really that bad?”

“You’ll see when you meet her.”

We’d flown to Richmond, where Nesta had set up her company after the app she had designed had taken off. Six Queens, it was called. It stored information about hundreds of phishing websites and financial scams and automatically flagged any that made their way into someone’s inbox or SMS. But unlike other similar apps, it went one step beyond and contacted the relevant authorities to make them aware of the scam. When Rhys had told me about all of this, I’d been amazed.

“It’s really top-notch,” Rhys had said, speaking from a professional perspective. “I wonder where she got the idea.”

“My father,” I said without hesitation. “He was scammed out of all of our savings after our mom died. One of those tricks still floating around after the housing crisis. It’s why we had to move.”

Rhys pressed his lips together but didn’t say anything. He left me and Mor to pack, and Mor was bemoaning the fact that I had to leave behind the more fashionable ensemble she’d acquired for me in favor of something better suited to the classic South. Richmond didn’t have the same fashion sense as New York or California, I’d told her.

“At least they’ve got their toes in the twenty-first century,” Mor said with a sigh. “Not like the Deep South.”

“I’m not sure,” I admitted. “The rural side of the state wasn't particularly up to date. I’m a spinster by their standards.”

Mor gasped, scandalized. “You’re not even twenty-one!”

“And by the time I deployed most of the girls in my graduating class were already engaged or married, and many had their first kid already. That wasn’t a money thing, either--it was across the board. Even if someone was wealthy enough to send their girls to college, they’d come back engaged by Spring Break. It was almost more scandalous if they didn’t.” I folded up a boatneck sweater and mused, “You’d think with more opportunities, more money, they’d have let their girls have more choices.”

Mor laughed in the back of her throat. “Money sometimes makes it worse.”

I dared to ask, “What was it like for you?”

Mor shrugged casually, but I could tell the gesture was rehearsed. “I was a child actor. Too young to manage my own funds. So it all went to my parents and my manager. And when I started to age out of the Disney Channel, they got panicky, worried I wouldn’t be their little cash cow anymore. They tried to hold me back, keep me from growing up, so I could retain as much of my tween audience as possible.” She flexed her jaw. “They told me where to go, what to say, what to wear. I wasn’t allowed any friends except those they approved. They even chose my boyfriend for me--Mark Eris. Morrimark, is what they called us. Sounded like a damn cineplex.”

“I remember him,” I said. “Isn’t he in prison now?”

“Domestic abuse,” Mor confirmed lightly.

“Did he--”

“It’s a long and messy story,” Mor said with a wave of her hand. I got the message. “I just wanted to let you know I’m not coming to Virginia. I’ll be taking the lead on the Weaver stuff.”

“I’ll miss you,” I said honestly. I had been hoping to have Mor there with me as I faced down my sisters, whom I hadn’t seen since before Russia.

“It’s nice to know I’ll be missed,” Mor said, the shine returning to her smile. “But you’ll be fine. You’ll have Rhys and the boys there with you. And I know you can handle it.”

I smiled and zipped my luggage shut. “Thanks Mor. That means a lot.”

Mor squeezed my hand. “Any time.”

Chapter Text

 

1600 24 NOV 2021. Richmond, Virginia, United States of America

It had been over fifteen months since I’d last seen my family. It had been a short visit right before I’d been deployed to Russia, and though that short visit had been almost pleasant, so much had happened since that I had no idea what to anticipate.

I certainly wasn’t expecting the changes Nesta had made to the green-roofed house she had chosen for them in the suburbs of Richmond not long after I’d first enlisted--three bedrooms with a garage converted to office space from which she ran her business. My father even had his own apartment inside. Whether that was his idea or whether Nesta had assigned it to him to keep him out of her hair remained unclear. She’d already decorated for Christmas--a fresh evergreen was visible in the front bow window, and lights were strung along the gables. Nesta wasn’t religious--I wasn’t sure about Elain, but my next-oldest sister was likely responsible for the festive decor.

Rhys, Cassian, and Azriel waited in the car while I went up the front steps and rang the doorbell.

The green-painted door swung inwards, and I was greeted by Elain’s big brown eyes. “Feyre!” she gasped.

“Elain,” I said hoarsely.

Unsurprisingly, she burst into tears. Surprisingly, she threw her arms around my neck and practically dragged me inside. When she’d recovered herself, she said, “Here! Let me take your coat! I just made some tea. Please, come sit down! Nesta!” Elain hollered upstairs as she fluttered about.

Then I heard slow, even footsteps on the stairs. I looked up and saw Nesta, looking down at me with wide eyes and lips pressed then.

“You didn’t tell her I was coming?” I asked my eldest sister.

“I thought it would be a nice surprise,” she said coolly. Her eyes looked me up and down, and her expression said that whatever she saw wasn’t nice at all.

Elain practically dragged me into the living room, making me sit on the new couch there and babbling on already about how much she’d missed me and how was I? and all manner of things. Nesta said not a word.

“Where’s Dad?” I finally asked.

“He won a retreat,” Elain said, her voice getting quieter. “He’s in the Caribbean.”

“How nice,” I said blandly. I hadn’t wanted to see him much, anyway.

“He was gone by the time we found out you were coming,” Elain said, but I shook my head.

“Don’t worry about it.”

“We were surprised to find out you were coming at all,” Nesta said. “Isn’t Thanksgiving much nicer in New York?” The way she said the words stung, and I knew without having to ask that she was quite up to date on the past few months.

“I don’t do well with loud noises,” I said, locking eyes with her.

“We know.”

“We are glad to see you, Feyre,” Elain said. “It’s nice to have you here for the holiday.”

“She’s not here for us,” Nesta said tersely. “Her new employer wants to make a deal with me. Otherwise she wouldn’t be here.”

Elain blinked, and I shifted in my seat. “I felt fairly certain you wouldn’t want to deal with my baggage on top of everything else you were handling,” I said. “But if you want to know what happened, I’ll tell you.”

Nesta just lifted her eyebrow.

So I told her as much as I could bear. I told her about being captured, tortured, almost dying of infection, killing my fellow prisoners and having my neck broken. About the months of recovery in Germany. When I got to the reality show, Nesta rolled her eyes, but Elain teared up when I explained that I hadn’t had the spirit to say no. I skipped the wedding, since the whole nation had seen that. But the months after . . . seeing Rhys’s doctor, the panic attack, starting to work for Knight Tech . . . it got easier the nearer to the present I got. I didn’t say anything about Carver’s theories, but I did emphasize that Rhys wanted a deal with Nesta because he truly thought they could help each other. Help others.

“Tell him I’m not interested,” Nesta said curtly. “Owning a business is not easy, and I don’t want his reputation wrecking what I’ve done for myself.”

“He was proven innocent.”

“Plenty of people still think he’s guilty. And you know how people in the South are about patriotism and treason.”

“Yes,” I said bitterly, “they tattoo the flag of treason on their biceps and wave it from the backs of their flatbeds as a sign of southern pride.” I used not to have an opinion on the confederate flag, but serving in the military had changed my mind.

Nesta’s lip curled. “Regardless of all that, I don’t want the attention coming around here, not with my business and not with Elain’s wedding coming up.”

“Wedding?”

Elain blushed and hurried to explain her college sweetheart, whose father was mayor of of a small town outside of Richmond and who was thoroughly Republican . . . and was well-known for his poor opinion of Rhysand on social media. “I don’t have an opinion,” she assured me. “And honestly . . . I think Nesta should help. She works so hard, all alone.” She turned to Nesta. “You’ve helped so many people. But you could help so many more. The least you could do is talk to him.” She got up to accept a delivery at the door, and Nesta turned to me.

“I don’t like Mayor Nolan, for the record. I just worry about Elain,” Nesta said.

“You always have. Does he treat her well?”

Nesta nodded. Then she looked me over, her expression thoughtful. “You went into that camp to save Springer. Went through all that . . . and it still did not end well?”

“I went in to get him out. Then, when we got home . . . he wanted to keep me caged in.”

“Why?”

“To protect me. To pretend it was all right . . . I’m not sure. I think what happened to him, to us, in Russia broke him.” I swallowed, my mouth dry despite the tea.

“And now you’re with someone else.”

I bristled, wanting to say that I wasn’t with Rhysand, but . . . Nesta didn’t mean it that way. So I just nodded. “Would you like to meet them?”

-

1800 25 NOV 2021. Richmond, Virginia, United States of America

Thanksgiving dinner was about as awful as I expected.

Elain had spent the day with her fiance, having a brunch with his parents. Nesta had insisted on hearing Rhys’s proposal regardless of the holiday, and he’d obliged. They’d been working all day until Elain returned and started cooking. Cassian, Azriel, and I had entertained ourselves watching the dog show. I’d wanted to help Rhys, but one look at how he and my sister had sized each other up and I’d known that this wasn’t a conversation I wanted to be a part of.

I formally introduced Elain and Nesta to Cassian and Azriel. “Nice to meet you,” Elain squeaked, uncharacteristically nervous. It was only then I realized just how intimidating the three of them really were. I was so used to being around them now that I’d stopped noticing.

When we all sat down to dinner, Rhys said, “Thank you for your hospitality--and generosity.”

We made small talk, everyone trying and failing to avoid awkwardness. I casually mentioned the restaurant above Rhys’s apartment, where we ate fairly regularly.

Elain’s fork clattered on her plate. “You eat at Sidra? Often? That’s . . . that’s a three-Michelin star restaurant.” She seemed to wither at the understanding that her home-cooked food didn’t compare.

“It’s nothing like home-cooked food,” I assured her, but it was clear she didn’t believe me. “I’ll take you there, if you ever come to visit New York.”

Nesta lifted her chin. “I have no interest in ever visiting New York, so I’ll have to take your word on it.”

“Nesta, please,” Elain murmured.

Cassian’s gaze was fixed on Nesta, and she demanded, “What are you staring at?”

Cassian’s jaw was tight. “Someone who let her youngest sister risk her life and liberty to hunt and provide food while she did nothing. She was fourteen.” I opened my mouth to interrupt, but Cassian continued, “She gave everything to protect this country. Gave everything of herself. And she’s still giving. So don’t expect me to sit here with my mouth shut while you sneer at her--at a soldier--while you did nothing to help her or the effort in any way.”

Nesta just stared him down, then turned her face away. Dismissing him. Cassian’s grip on his fork was white-knuckled, but Elain cut him off before he could tear into Nesta.

“We’ll never understand,” she said quietly. “What you gave. What it was like. We’ll never know what you’ve all been through. We can try, but we know we’ll fall short. As for those years before . . . it wasn’t Nesta’s neglect alone that is to blame. We were scared, and had never prepared for something like that, and everything had been lost, and we failed her. Both of us.”

Rhys glanced at me. He was stiff, anxious over the darker turn of the conversation, but he let me answer. I took hold of Nesta’s arm on the table. “Can we just . . . start over?”

There was a moment of tense silence before my sister said, “Fine.”

-

2200 25 NOV 2021. Richmond, Virginia, United States of America

We returned to the hotel Rhys had booked. He’d offered to get me a separate room, but I had told him not to bother. I didn’t tell him that I was worried I’d wake up in the middle of the night and panic because I didn’t recognize where I was. If I knew he was with me . . . perhaps I wouldn’t fear.

“Nesta is a delight, by the way,” he said as he slung his jacket over the chair by the desk.

“She’s . . . her own creature,” I said. “How did the proposal go?”

“It’ll take some work to see eye to eye,” was all Rhys said. He began to unbutton his shirt, revealing his tanned throat, and said, “It’s been a long time since someone got under Cassian’s skin that easily. Too bad they’re both inclined to kill the other.”

“I won’t get involved in that melodrama. My life is miserable enough as it is--why would I want to spread that misery to those around me?”

“Is it miserable? Your life, I mean.”

I didn’t look at him, just fiddled with the settings on the lamp beside my own queen bed. “I don’t know. Everything is happening so fast that I don’t know what to feel.” I turned to my bed and saw that there was already a silky nightgown and a pair of flimsy underthings laid out on my bed.

“I took the liberty of unpacking for you,” Rhys said, his eyes glimmering as he watched my cheeks redden at the sight of the lingerie. “I couldn’t decide which scrap of lace I wanted you to wear, so I set you out a few to choose from.”

“Pig!” I barked, snatching the clothes and fleeing into the bathroom to change. My cheeks grew even warmer as I heard his midnight laughter follow me.

When I returned, the lamps were turned down and Rhys was in bed, his face shrouded by darkness. “I didn’t think I could get through that dinner,” he confessed when I was under my blankets as well.

“What do you mean?”

“Your sisters mean well, or one of them does. But seeing them, sitting at that table . . . I hadn’t realized it would hit me as strongly. How young you were. How they didn’t protect you.”

“I managed just fine.”

“I need this deal with Nesta, and I’m thankful she’s even talking to me. But it will be a long while yet before I can look at your sisters without wanting to rage at them.”

“A part of me feels the same way,” I admitted. “But all of that . . . led to all of this. For better or worse.”

Rhys was quiet for a moment. “When is your birthday?”

“December 21st.”

“That’s soon. You didn’t say anything.”

“I wasn’t planning on celebrating. I haven’t in years.”

“Would you care to? This year?”

I shrugged and then realized he couldn’t see it. “I don’t think I’d even know how.”

“I have some ideas. Besides, you still owe me a date.”

I swallowed and rolled over onto my side. “Good night, Rhys,” I said.

A low chuckle. “Good night, Feyre darling.”

As I drifted off to sleep, arms wrapped around my body, my fingers absently traced up and down the raised scar on my left arm. And I realized that for the first time in a very, very long time, it didn’t make me feel so cold.

Chapter Text

1900 20 DEC 2021. New York City, New York, United States of America

“I’m going for a run,” I announced to the mound of tuckered-out men in Rhys’s living room.

“Damn woman, you still have energy after this morning?” Cassian grunted. We’d spent two hours in the gym that morning, doing kickboxing and Krav Maga. Usually it was just an hour, but we’d been hitting it more often the past few weeks to make up for our increased holiday food consumption. We’d finished celebrating Hanukkah two weeks prior--Azriel was Jewish, and so, technically, were Cassian and Rhysand, though Azriel was the only one who still actively practiced the religious parts. They all celebrated Hanukkah, though, and I’d eaten so many latkes and jelly doughnuts that, two weeks later, I still felt like I was working them off.

Truthfully, I didn’t have much energy left after my earlier workout, but I needed to get out of the apartment. The weather had gotten cold and I’d been struck with some intense cabin fever. And Rhys had been a bit unbearable recently--the stress of holiday business was getting to him. Though my job involved specific branches of his company, he still had to think of the public sector aspects of it, and holiday marketing had been a drain on him. He was putting pressure on himself to meet at least the same sales marks as they’d hit the past two years, if not more--he hated the thought of his return damaging the company in this way, as well. Thankfully, the bracelets like the one I wore had finished their test runs early and were being fast-tracked--but this came with its own challenges.

“You have your phone?” Rhys asked from where he was sprawled on the couch, his foot propped up on the armrest. Papers and invoices surrounded him, but he’d obviously given up on them for the night in favor of a glass of red wine.

“Yes, I do, and yes, I’ll call if I need anything,” I said, grabbing my keys from the hook near the door.

“If you’re heart rate spikes, I’ll know you’re thinking of me,” Rhys said. His voice was tired, but no less mischievous.

I flipped him off and Cassian cackled as the door clicked shut behind me. When I was alone in the hall, I couldn’t help but laugh.

I took the subway to Central Park, my hood pulled up over my head and sunglasses on despite the evening hour. It had been pretty easy to blend in once I arrived in New York, but I still didn’t take chances. I’d only just arrived at my preferred running spot when my phone--provided by Rhysand, since Tamlin had never let me have one--buzzed.

I’m bored. See anyone interesting?

It had been a surprise to learn upon moving in with him that Rhys was a people-watcher, but it fit when I thought about it. If I was ever out and about without him, he liked to hear of interesting people that crossed my path. Sometimes I thought he just liked hearing me describe them.

No, you snoop. I haven’t even started running yet.

Mind if I join you?

Could have said something an hour ago. I’ll be done by the time you get here.

Then I’ll hurry.

Don’t you have more important things to do?

Yes. But Cassian’s breath stinks. And . . . other parts of him.

I snorted out loud and caught the attention of passersby. Poor baby millionaire. Life is so hard.

Life is better when you’re around.

My cheeks flushed in spite of myself. If you can catch me, you’re welcome to join. I sent that message and then added another: You’re a shameless flirt.

You love it.

I rolled my eyes and tucked my phone away so I could begin my run. It was a nice, pleasant evening, and the paths of Central Park were well-lit. Once, I might have been afraid of coming here alone, but the months of training with Cassian assured me that if anyone dared to jump me, they’d be sorry. I hadn’t been bad at physical combat as a soldier, but it hadn’t been a priority, not like it was now. And I was proud of myself for the muscle mass I was slowly gaining back after a year of wasting away.

I pulled back my hood after a while and let the cool breeze kiss my cheeks. I ran for an hour, and by the time my knees started barking I had almost made it back to where I’d started. I decided to go easy on myself and slow down, pausing to catch my breath on the side of the path.

“Feyre Archeron?”

I snapped upright, looking around for the source of the question. I backed away toward a bench when I saw a young man with a professional camera not much older than me approaching. “Where have you been?” the cameraman asked, drawing closer.

“Leave me alone,” I said, lifting my hand in front of my face.

“DC misses you!” I turned to begin hurrying down the path toward the subway, but the man with the camera followed me. Then, suddenly, there were more of them. Waiting for me.

An ambush.

My heart began to race faster as the cameras flashed and I took another path, trying to throw them off. But there--there were more. “Leave me alone!” I said again, pulling my hood up over my face.

“Is is true you’re dating Rhysand Knight?”

“Have you left Tamlin Springer?”

“What really happened in Russia?”

“Do you plan to resume the TV show?”

“Come on, Feyre, talk to us!”

“No!” I cried, trying to find a way out of the crowd of photographers and reporters that had come out of nowhere. “Get away from me!”

“Do you have anything to say to Tamlin?”

“Are you really a hero?”

“Have you killed people?”

I screamed and backed into a tree, pressing my hand over my mouth. “Help!” I called to any passerby. “Stop it!” The flashing, the clicking, it was too much . . .

ENOUGH OF THAT!

My pulse sputtered as a large shadow fell over me, standing between me and the paparazzi. A strong arm looped around my shoulders and tucked me close, throwing a coat or blanket or something over my body. The scent of citrus and jasmine washed over me and my shoulders instantly relaxed.

“Everyone get out of here or I will sue you for everything you’re worth!” Rhysand barked, his tone loud and imperious. I’d--I’d never heard him like that before. “I’ve already called the police,” he added.

That was enough to get most of the photographers to scatter, but Rhys guided me under his arm away from the herd to a car that was waiting on the curb. He provided a barrier against the cameras with his body as I scrambled inside.

Rhys joined me and the door shut, and I slid as far to the other side of the car as possible. His body was taut, tense, and rippling with cold rage. So different from the man who’d been sprawled out on his couch only hours before. “What are they going to do?” I asked. “Will they follow us?”

“Maybe. But the driver knows how to throw them off.” Rhys didn’t look at me as he tried to contain his anger. He sighed and pushed his hair back with his hand. “They’ll probably sell the pictures to TMZ or some other low-rate gossip hub. They’ll pretend you said something interesting. Then they’ll move on like the roaches they are.” He was quiet for a long moment before finally shifting his violet eyes to me. “Why didn’t you call me?”

“I didn’t have time,” I gasped. “It all happened so fast. I couldn’t do anything--”

Rhys scoffed, and I found myself offended. “What?” I demanded.

“You couldn’t do anything,” he repeated. “Says the woman who faced down Whitley Weaver on her own turf, who helped negotiate a deal with Six Queens, who survived goddamned Russia and lived to tell about it.” His upper lip curled. “You’ll forgive me, Feyre, if I don’t believe you were helpless.”

“I was surprised!” I snapped. “Getting swarmed by paparazzi isn’t exactly something I cover with Cassian in kickboxing!”

“We’ll have to change that,” Rhys said. “And we’ll add some mental exercises, too, because apparently you forgot how to fight at all.”

I sat up straight in my seat, the seat belt pressing against my collarbone. “So what if I did?” I hissed. “So what if I did?” I gestured sharply at the car, the city around us. “It’s not easy!”

Rhys leaned toward me and said in a low voice. “You have no idea how not easy it is.”

I wasn’t sure what possessed me then--whether it was anger at him, at the photographers, or at myself--but before I could stop myself I reached out with my left hand and slapped him across the face--hard. His eyes went wide and his jaw slightly slack and he lifted his hand to his face.

“Don’t ever talk down to me again,” I spat. “You’re my employer, Rhysand, but that doesn’t give you the right to talk to me like I’m some little mouse running scared.”

Rhys’s nostrils flared. “Then don’t act like one.” He hadn’t leaned away. I was suddenly painfully aware of how close we were, how thickly his scent filled the back seat.

He was right. I had stopped fighting.

“I don’t always get it right,” I said through gritted teeth as I pulled back. “But I am not a child. And if you continue to talk to me like one, then I’m gone. Done. No more Knight Tech.”

Rhys sat back up and massaged his jaw, not meeting my eye. “Fair enough.” The silence was heavy between us before he said, “I’m sorry.”

I just turned and looked out the window, watching the city streets go by through the tinted window.

1500 21 DEC 2021. New York City, New York, United States of America

“I made some calls,” Rhys said to me the next day when he returned early from his office. He’d given me the day off for my birthday, but I hadn’t done much of anything with it besides nurse my dignity from the night before and try to solve one major problem that had presented itself. I’d been tempted to see what pictures of me had surfaced on social media, but the sessions with my psychiatrist reminded me that it would do me no good.

“Oh?” I asked, not looking at him from where I sat at the breakfast bar.

“Most of the main gossip rags in this city have agreed not to purchase any of the photos from last night.” Rhys hung his coat on the hook by the door. “I can’t do anything about the smartphones out there, but the magazines are taken care of.”

“How much did that cost you?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

I sighed and said. “I wrote something. I want--I want people to read it. I want Tamlin to read it. But I don’t know how best to share it.” I hadn’t made any social media accounts since coming here. If I ever wanted to look at stuff I just used Rhys’s or Mor’s.

Rhys looked at me closely, trying to read my expression. I just slid him the piece of paper I’d spent the day agonizing over. It read:

An Open Letter to Tamlin Springer from Feyre Archeron.

I left you this fall of my own free will. No one coerced me or paid me. I didn’t do it for the attention or because I wanted to hurt anyone. But I needed space, and time to heal. I am cared for and safe, and I wish you and others would respect my privacy. I am grateful for all that you did for me, all that you gave. We went through a lot together, and I’ll remember that.

Please don’t send anyone after me and don’t try to contact me. I hope this satisfies everyone’s curiosity and concern. I’m not coming back to Spring Valley and I have no intention of resuming any work on the TV show. Neither is in the best interest of my health or well-being.

Thank you,

Feyre Archeron

“Are you sure?” Rhys asked. I nodded, and he said, “Mor will post it for you across platforms. She’s good with all of that.”

I looked out the window at the city beyond, the city I hadn’t even explored much in the months I’d been here. “I’m no one’s pet,” I said. Rhys’s reflection in the window was contemplative. “What’s next?” I said.

“You don’t have to think about work today.”

“I’ll think about what I want,” I said sharply. “What do you need next from me?”

Rhys leaned against the other side of the breakfast bar, and I finally looked at him, ignoring the clenching in my stomach at the perfect planes of his face. “How does California sound?”

“Silicon Valley?”

Rhys nodded. “Once the holiday rush is over, we’ll take a trip out there to meet with Tarquin Sommers, head of Adriata Enterprises.” At my raised eyebrow, he said, “Fitness tech. Adjacent to what I do. He’s been eyeing my Vitality Bracelet for months.”

I lifted my wrist. “Is that what it’s called now?”

“I swear, do you read anything I give you?”

I shrugged. “When I need to.”

Rhys smirked. “Tarquin has contacts in the healthcare industry, exactly where I hope to be. I need to convince him we’re not competitors, that mine is for medical and not recreational use. In short, I need you to charm him . . . as you’re so very good at it.”

“Speaking of charming,” I said, leaning on my crossed arms. “I heard you say a few weeks ago that you had ideas for my birthday. You told me this city was better seen at night. Are you all talk, or will you ever bother to show me?”

Rhys let out a low laugh as he scanned me. We were close together, but I did not flinch away. Then, when he met my eyes, he smiled, and the clenching in my stomach abruptly released. “Dinner,” he said. “Tonight. Let’s find out if you, Feyre darling, are all talk--or if you’ll let a son of New York to take you out on the town.”

1930 21 DEC 2021. New York City, New York, United States of America

Rhys was right--New York was amazing at night. We started at the lower end of Central Park, right in the heart of the major tourist destinations. He teased me, saying he’d show me the real New York one day but that I could not possibly be allowed to live here any longer without seeing Times Square.

I’d seen it plenty of times on TV growing up, of course, but my work for Rhysand had been primarily uptown--aside from Whitley Weaver, who’d been in the Garment District. I think I had been subconsciously avoiding it, because I associated it with cameras and fame and celebrity, and I wanted nothing to do with that anymore. I’d said as much to Rhys, but he’d just laughed and said, “Don’t worry, darling. It’s the height of tourist season. You’ll be the last thing anyone is staring at. Except me, of course.” I’d rolled my eyes and he’d protested, “Can you blame me, with you looking like that?”

I’d blushed. Mor had bought the dress for me for my birthday--a dark violet dress that fell just above my knees and clung to the few curves I had. It was velvet, to keep me warm, and I wore knit leggings underneath, but I still felt beautiful in it. I felt beautiful--for the first time in a long time.

After Times Square, Rhys walked me down Broadway, pointing out the different theatres and running shows. I’d never seen a stage play, except the tiny ones put on by our floundering arts department at our high school. I’d worked stage crew for Fiddler on the Roof one year, and Rhys found that endlessly entertaining. “Katie was obsessed with that show,” he said. “She used to stand on the kitchen table and bellow ‘If I Was a Rich Man’ until our mother would holler at her in Ukrainian to knock it off. She couldn’t use Yiddish, because that would just make the whole problem worse.”

I still didn’t want to ask about Katie--he so rarely brought her up and I didn’t want to ruin the mood--so I asked, “How many languages do you speak?”

Rhys gave a self-satisfied smile. “English, Ukrainian, scads of Yiddish--I’m a bit out of practice--Russian, Spanish, and French.”

“French?”

“How else would I be able to woo beautiful women? It’s the language of love, after all.” He lifted my hand and kissed the back of it, eyes glimmering with mischief. “Tu es la plus belle femme de ma monde, l'étoile de ma nuit, et j'aimerais pouvoir tu dire ce que tu représentes pour moi.”

“I didn’t understand a word of that.”

Rhys’s eyes shone like stars. “I know.”

I pulled my hand away and kept walking, shaking my head good-naturedly. I was sucked into the world around me, absorbing the lights and sounds of life and love. This had been here, all this time, and I’d never bothered to come see it. That was going to change starting tonight.

Rhys and I then took a taxi down past Gramercy Park to East Village, and he led me to a small restaurant that most people seemed to pass by. The hostess lit up like a firefly when she saw Rhys and hastily took our coats. “It’s so good to see you again!” she exclaimed. “Babusya will be so happy!”

I looked around the place and knew at once that this was no Sidra. It was smaller, cozier, and festively decorated for the holidays. The hostess led us to a table in the corner and Rhys pulled out my chair for me. There was a loud cry of excitement from the back room and suddenly a old woman was hurrying out. She thoroughly embraced Rhys and grabbed his face to kiss him on both cheeks. She let out a flood of rapid Ukrainian and Rhys responded in kind to calm her down.

“Babusya, this is Feyre Archeron. I’m taking her out for her birthday so I’d love your very best.”

“Oh, of course, of course!” Babusya said emphatically, practically in tears. “I am so happy my boy is home!”

Rhys smiled, but I saw a flash of pain in his features, too--perhaps he, like me, had been avoiding certain things since returning. “Who is she?” I asked as we took our seats.

“A very old friend of the family,” Rhys explained. “My mother worked for her when she first emigrated here, while she was working her way through fashion school and improving her English. She’s not really my grandmother, but . . . it always felt like it. This was my favorite place to eat, before . . .” Before everything.

Faster than I could have thought possible, the table was loaded with pierogi and kielbasa and a number of other dishes I had trouble pronouncing, but Rhys patiently explained what each one was and shared his favorites. He also ordered me their best wine. “To your first legal drink,” he said with a wink, toasting me.

“It was legal in Europe,” I protested, and Rhys laughed.

Babusya came out again and asked how the food was. She looked to me especially, and I wasn’t sure why my opinion mattered, but I said, “It has been a very, very long time since I’ve enjoyed food this much.” Her eyes shone, and I added. “It makes me . . . feel awake.”

Babusya sniffled with emotion. “The strudel is on the house.”

When we’d finished our meal, I thought I might need someone to roll me out. So much for being better about my diet. Well, there was always the new year.

“Would you like to walk it off for a bit or are you too cold?” Rhys asked as we strolled down the street.

“Walk it off, definitely,” I said.

“Excellent,” he said. “It’s only a couple of miles to the best view in the city.”

We walked halfway to Rockefeller Plaza and then took a cab the rest of the way, if only because I was sore from overdoing it at the gym. Rhys pointed out on the map of the city in the cab where all the art museums were, but I only nodded distantly. My heart didn’t have room for art yet--I thought that if I went to the Met or Museum of Modern Art or any of it, I might collapse under the weight of my own insignificance. I didn’t need that right now. Maybe . . . maybe one day soon.

When we were at the Top of the Rock, looking over the city, my breath was swept away by the beauty of it. “This is my favorite view in the city,” Rhys said. “It was my sister’s favorite, too. My father used to have to drag her kicking and screaming out of New York, she loved it so much.”

The quiet sorrow in those words, and the second mention of Katie tonight, practically begged me to ask. But I . . . couldn’t. “Why buy a house in Virginia then, if you love it here so much?”

“Because I wanted someplace quiet to go--so I could visit this clamor whenever I wished and then have a home to retreat to.” He looked sideways at me. “The past few months might make you believe otherwise, but I actually spent most of my time in Virginia. But after being made to stay there during my trial . . . the clamor has been better for me.”

I understood. Oh, how I did understand. “It must be nice, having all that money . . . being able to do whatever you please.” It was ungenerous of me to say--I knew how hard he worked. But the me that had been poor still kept a part of my heart bitter.

Rhys turned to face me and I braced myself for his retort, but he simply said, “There are a great many things that I wish to do, and don’t get to.”

There was a quiet static in the air between us. I had to change the subject. “So when you buy jewelry for Amren, if it to keep yourself in her good graces or because you’re--involved?” I didn’t even know if the question was preposterous since I still had no idea how old Amren was. Not that I thought Rhys would care one way or another.

Rhys smirked. “Amren would have no interest in me even if I’d offered. The jewelry is just because I appreciate what she does, what she did for my father. Staying in her good graces is an added bonus.”

“And you’ve never been married.” I thought I would know but I didn’t take anything for granted with him.

“So many questions tonight.” I didn’t let up my gaze and he sighed. “I’ve had plenty of girlfriends and lovers, through high school and college and even after, but I never felt tempted to ask any one of them to marry me. And I honestly think that if I’d asked, they all would have said no.”

“I would have thought they’d be fighting each other to win your heart.”

“Marrying me would mean dealing with attention, both public and political, that most people would rather not. It seems glamorous from the outside, but as I’m sure you know for yourself, it’s a burden. And . . . I work a lot. Not appealing to most women.”

It struck me then--the realization that Rhys . . . he didn’t feel wanted. Hadn’t, for a long time. It was hard to know what to say to that. “Are you worried about Azriel’s trip to D.C. tomorrow?” Despite what Rhys had said about not being able to do anything about Secretary Springer’s questionable activities, Azriel was going to meet with some contacts of his to see what the likelihood of releasing Rhys’s intel from Russia was. It would implicate Secretary Springer and clear Rhys’s name entirely--but in the past few months nothing had budged. Azriel was going to see if he could pull some strings.

“Of course. He’s sticking his neck out for me. But Azriel is a professional, and he’d find my worrying insulting.”

“Does he mind any of it?” Azriel seemed to operate in the gray areas--employed by Rhys, technically, but his work had very little to do with Knight Tech. It seemed to have far more to do with his former career in national security.

“It’s hard to tell with him,” Rhys sighed. “He’d never tell me if he did. Cassian I both try to let him know--tell him we’d understand. But the only person who ever gets him to admit to any sort of feeling is Mor. And that’s only when she’s pestered him to the point where eve his infinite patience runs out.”

“But he and Mor--they never . . .?”

“That is very complicated, and it’s between them--and Cassian. I’m not stupid or arrogant enough to get in the middle of it.”

We headed down to the bottom of the plaza, and as we were walking to where we could call a cab, I halted in my tracks as the live music played a tune that I knew in my bones--that I thought I’d hallucinated over a year ago. It was . . . it was just as beautiful now as it had been then. The aching, haunting melody, the swelling crescendo . . . it had been the last scrap of a thing I could cling to, the one thing that had kept from from completely breaking.

“You,” I breathed, not looking at Rhys as my eyes found the musicians responsible for the simple symphony. “You sent that music into my cell. Why?”

Rhys’s voice was so soft I almost didn’t hear his reply. “Because you were breaking. And I couldn’t find another way to save you.”

I fought to keep the tears from rolling down my cheeks. “Thank you. For everything--for what you did. Then . . . and now.”

Rhys just flagged down a cab and held the door open for me as I climbed inside and we rode in silence back to his apartment.

-

0001 22 DEC 2021. New York City, New York, United States of America

When I got to my room that night, I saw that I’d left my phone on my bedside table. Further, I hadn’t looked at it at all since the night before. Rhys’s most recent text to me had gone unread from hours before.

I might be a shameless flirt, but at least I don’t have a horrible temper. You should come tend to my wounds from our squabble in the car. I think I’m going to get a bruise.

He hadn’t, but I laughed to myself anyway.

Go lick your wounds and let me sleep, I texted back.

I had dropped my head against my pillow and started to close my eyes before he texted back: I’ve tried my hardest, but I cannot lick my own face. I’d much rather you do it for me.

My fingers trembled and my heart was fluttering. I didn’t even care that Rhys could see it on the Vitality app if he wanted. I wouldn’t put it past him to have it open just to see what kind of reaction his flirting caused. But two could play at that game. Lick you where, exactly?

After I sent the text, I opened my app to watch his reaction. And to my wicked delight, it seemed there was a spike in heart rate as soon as he read my text.

My phone buzzed and I read, Wherever you want to lick me, Feyre. I’d like to start with “Everywhere,” but I can choose, if necessary.

I wrote back, Let’s hope my licking is better than yours. I remember how horrible you were at it in Russia.

My body temperature rose at the lie. He’d licked away my tears when I’d been a moment away from shattering. He’d done it to get me angry, to keep me fighting. To keep me from breaking, as he had with the music.

I was under duress, his next text read. If you want, I’d be more than happy to prove you wrong. I’ve been told I’m very, very good at licking.

I swore softly and buried my face in my pillow as I clenched my knees together, trying desperately not to think of what it would feel like for him to lick me. Good night, I shot back when I’d composed myself.

I’d thought that the end, but he sent one more. Try not to moan too loudly when you dream about me. I need my beauty rest.

I let out an indignant noise, and before I could stop myself I sent him a vulgar emoji and turned off my phone. More bothered than I cared to admit, I buried myself in my blankets and tried to shut out the entirely indecent thoughts he’d brought to mind.

But in the dark, I could have sworn I heard his laughter rumble down the hall.

Chapter Text

 

0730 03 JAN 2022. New York City, New York, United States of America

Once the New Year had passed, Cassian decided that we all had to suffer for the holidays. He had us all hit the gym every morning before any of us went to work--even Mor. She and I ran through weightlifting intervals together, and I was amazed by the tightly-corded muscle that wrapped around her torso. I’d suspected she was muscular--she loved showing off her arms, after all--but she made me look like a twig in comparison.

“Don’t worry, you’ll get there,” she said, flashing me a grin before dead-lifting two-hundred pounds.

Cassian wasn’t nearly as chipper when it came to our martial training. Though he was a jester out of the gym, he was dead-serious whenever we set foot on the mat. But his training was good, and I learned specific techniques and felt stronger every day. I sparred with Cassian while Rhys and Azriel were occupied on the other mat--both of them shirtless. I was more preoccupied by the sight of it than I wanted to admit. My brows furrowed when I saw Rhys was tattooed, too--he hadn’t been in the military like the rest of us, so I suppose I hadn’t expected it. But his pectorals and shoulders were covered in swirling designs, not too dissimilar from the tattoo on my left hand and wrist.

An image flashed across my mind--a solid concept of . . . of a painting. And then it was gone.

Cassian waved me over to the bench, where I sat and grabbed my water bottle, legs quaking. He sat beside me and took a swig of his own water. “So, when are you going to talk about that open letter to Tamlin that the entire world saw, telling him you’ve left for good?”

The question startled me, and like a cornered animal I snapped back, “How about when you talk about how you tease and taunt Mor to hide whatever it is you feel for her?”

Cassian snorted. “Old news.”

“I have a feeling that’s probably what she says about you.”

Cassian stood back up to his feet. “Get back in the ring. No core exercises, just fists. You want to mouth off, then back it up.”

I stood, hardly able to stay upright on my quaking legs, but his words were on repeat in my mind: you’ve left for good, you’ve left for good, you’ve left for good.

Something must have shown on my face, because Cassian put a massive hand on my shoulder and said, “Hey, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hit a nerve. None of us . . . we don’t think it’s a joke. What you did was a hard call. A really damn hard call. It was just my shitty way of trying to see if you needed to talk about it. I’m sorry,” he repeated. He let go of my shoulder.

Startled by his apology and somewhat chagrined, I said, “All right.”

Cassian held up the pads and I started punching, losing myself in the burn, the memories, the ache. “You didn’t answer my question,” he said after I’d been through a set.

“I’m fine,” I said through gritted teeth.

“Fine is good. Fine is great.”

I kept punching. Fine was a lie. The swirl of the holidays and the past few weeks had allowed me a distraction, but in the meantime I hadn’t been dealing with the consequences of my decisions. Hadn’t thought long and hard about Tamlin, what he’d put me through, except on my birthday. And even then, I’d avoided the worst of it. I’d avoided thinking about how he had held me back, had deliberately kept me from healing so that he could be the one in control, in power . . . whether he’d meant it that way or not. Because Amarantha . . . Amarantha had taken power and control away from him, and he hadn’t tried to fight for it back. He’d just . . . sat there. Night after night. Watching me be tortured, while she’d kept him in once piece for his father’s sake. He’d been the one to kill her in the end, but . . . I’d fought harder for him than he’d fought for me.

The burning wasn’t just in my muscles anymore--it was in my eyes, and I punched through the tears as they streamed down my face. Then there was a twinge in my wrist as I lost focus on punched wrong, hitting Cassian’s arm. I gasped and stumbled backward, clutching my wrist and trying frantically to regain my composure. “I’m--sorry,” I blubbered.

“It’s all right,” Cassian said, lowering his pads and looking at me with such painful gentleness.

I stared at the hand I held in mine and for the first time in weeks I saw it covered in blood that was not mine. “I killed them,” I croaked. I hadn’t said it out loud since it’d happened.

“I know.” Cassian’s voice was low, soft, and full of grim understanding. He was a soldier--he did know.

I dropped my hands to my side, ignoring the jolt of pain that shot up my arm. “It should have been me.”

The words fell out of me like pebbles into a glassy lake, disrupting everything--ruining the false tranquility I’d imposed upon myself. The metallic tang and humid, sweat-soaked air of the gym hung around me like a heavy, punishing cloak, and I suddenly felt so small.

Then a shadow fell over me, and there were fingers on my chin, lifting it upward to meet beautiful violet eyes. “Come here,” Rhysand said gently. His hand guided me at the small of my back and he led me to a room full of extra equipment--and a First Aid kit. He closed the door and gestured for me to sit as he pulled out a bandage to wrap my wrist with. He knelt before me and I held out my hand in broken silence.

“You will feel that way every day for the rest of your life,” Rhys said. I tried to look away from him, but he took my chin again and made me look at him. “And I know this because I have felt that way every day since my mother and sister were shot out of the sky and I had to go identify their bodies myself . . . knowing that they wouldn’t have been on that plane if I’d joined them in Europe for summer break instead of taking another useless internship.” He wiped away my tears with his warm thumb. “You can either let it wreck you, or you can learn to live with it.”

For a moment I just stared. So that was what had happened to his family. “I’m sorry--about your family,” I rasped.

“I’m sorry I didn’t find a way to spare you from what happened in Russia,” Rhys replied in the same tone. “From getting hurt, almost dying--from wanting to die.” I began to shake my head, but he continued, “I have two kinds of nightmares: the ones where I’m again Amarantha’s whore or my friends are . . . and the ones where I hear your neck snap and see your eyes fall shut like you’ll never open them again.”

I couldn’t say anything, just dropped my eyes to the view of him kneeling before me, his taut muscles, the sweat gleaming on his skin, the swirl of his tattoos.

“Test that,” Rhys said softly, drawing my attention to the hand he’d finished bandaging. I flexed my fingers and nodded. “All right,” he said with a nod of approval. “Now for some mental exercises.”

“Excuse me?”

“We’ve dug deep, now it’s time to climb up. Think of something a little less gloomy--maybe of how good-looking I am, how talented . . .”

“How arrogant,” I snapped, my cheeks flushed. So he’d noticed my looking.

“That too,” he said, rolling his shoulders before standing up and offering me a hand. I ignored it.

“Put a shirt on while you’re at it,” I said.

Rhys grinned. “Does it make you uncomfortable?”

I took two quick steps toward the door and cracked it open. I was going to suffocate in that tiny room with him. “Maybe you should go lift weights with Mor. There’s plenty of mirrors to stare at yourself in over there.” Mor let out a whoop of approval from where she was doing squats.

Rhys leaned against the doorframe, pure affection in his violet eyes. “There’s the Feyre I adore.”

-

1830 15 JAN 2022. Palo Alto, California, United States of America

After the hustle and bustle of New York City, California was . . . a dream.

We’d arrived in Palo Alto earlier in the day and gotten a tour of Tarquin Sommer’s facilities at Adriata Enterprises. They were unsurprisingly cool and hip, and he had a Mediterranean Sea aesthetic going throughout the whole place--shades of teal and cream everywhere, with seashells-shaped everything. It was almost a parody of Silicon Valley companies.

The perks were incredible, however. That evening, Tarquin took us out on a cruise on an enclosed boat in the San Francisco Bay, and the sights were spectacular. It was a little too cool yet to spend time on the open decks, but the boat was well-equipped and inhabited by all of Tarquin’s Silicon Valley contacts, as well as his vice-president, Cresseida Atwater, and her brother, Varian Atwater. I wasn’t particularly fond of Cresseida, not after she’d gotten to know me by reciting her favorites headlines about me from the past several months.

Tarquin, thankfully, was a breath of fresh air. He was the epitome of a Californian--relaxed, approachable, but creative and hardworking. He had been delighted to show us his offices and had called me a pearl when I’d asked questions about his technology--out of genuine interest, not a game.

Rhys and I had taken a couple of hours to recover in our hotel room--separate, this time--and I’d found myself worrying about Varian. He wasn’t part of Adriata Enterprises. He worked on Pillar Point Air Force base, and while I wasn’t sure of his rank or his duties, he’d made some pointed remarks about Rhysand earlier, and implied that Secretary Springer was looking for a way to bring Rhys in for questioning again . . . and that he might insist I return to testify, as well.

If that happened . . . if I had to go back to D.C. and Rhys and I were separated . . .

“Would he try to take me back, do you think?” I’d asked Rhys as I stood at the dresser, pretending to debate about which earrings to wear. My tone was casual, but carefully managed.

“I don’t know. I’d like to see him try.”

“This probably makes me sound like I have far too high an opinion of myself, but do you think he’d threaten you? Just to make me come back to him?” I’d swallowed and tried to ignore how closely Rhys stood behind me. “I--I would go back. If it came to that, Rhysand. I’d go back, if it meant keeping you out of prison.” I’d turned around to look at him, noticing that he was still damp from his shower. There’d been very little space between us, but I hadn’t dared step away.

“Would you want to go back? Would taking a stand against me make you love him again? Would that be a grand gesture to win you?”

His words had made my heart ache. That he would think . . . “I’m tired of politics. And lies. And . . . imprisonment.”

“That doesn’t answer my question.”

“No. I wouldn’t want to go back. But I would. Scheming and manipulation wouldn’t win me.”

Rhys had stared at me for a moment longer, and I hadn’t gotten a read on his expression before he turned and walked toward the door. He’d paused there, his hand on the doorknob. “He locked you up because he knew--the bastard knew what a treasure you are. That you are worth more than land or money or power. He knew, and wanted to keep you all to himself.”

“He did--does love me, Rhysand.” But the words had felt flat on my tongue.

“The issue isn’t whether he loved you, it’s how much. Too much. Love can be a poison.”

And then he’d left.

Now--now he was at a table on the boat, Cresseida Atwater practically in his lap as he’d somehow managed to win her over from their frosty start earlier in the day. He’d flirted with her relentlessly all night, and now she was practically undressing him with her eyes. He was so good at this. What did he need me for, anyway?

My stomach was sour and I fiddled with the shrimp cocktail on my plate as Tarquin sat across from me, his thick locs falling over his shoulders and his dark skin contrasting with the light shirt he wore. We’d gotten along well all day, and I had to admit that his worldview, so easy and optimistic in the face of all the bleakness of the past several years, was endearing. And he was nice. It had been a long time since I’d met such a nice person, besides perhaps Mor.

“Tell me what that look means,” he said, breaking off the conversation we’d been in the middle of.

I bit my lip. “I’m thinking it would be very easy to love you. And easier to call you my friend.”

Tarquin’s smile was almost blinding--and it came so easily, not with careful coaxing or teasing like any of Rhys’s smiles. “I would not object to either.”

But my eyes drifted back to Rhys, and Cresseida almost in his lap now, and I realized that Tarquin . . . though he was kind, and intelligent, and attentive . . . he did not make me feel the way Rhys was making Cresseida feel. The way I wanted to feel. “I need some fresh air,” I said, standing to my feet.

“Would you like me to join you?”

I looked him over and realized that, though I had been honest with him, we would not match--not with the harshness of the world I had seen and the broken bits of me still rattling around inside. Tarquin needed someone better, someone . . . not so broken. “I’m fine, thank you.” And I left to go step outside to let the cool air of the bay brush against my face.

Rhys didn’t even look up to see me go.

 

-

1830 16 JAN 2022. Palo Alto, California, United States of America

I spent the morning the next day letting Tarquin show me around Palo Alto and Mountain View, which was a well-groomed and colorful area. Though I could appreciate it, there was something . . . manufactured, about the beauty. It wasn’t like New York, which was loud and ostentatious and never tried to be anything else. This place . . . it was so nearly kept it was almost disconcerting.

In the afternoon, I started my work of trying to convince Tarquin to give Rhysand his leads to the distributors and investors he needed. It wasn’t the fun part of the job, but Tarquin was so relaxed that it was a lot less painful that the Whitley Weaver affair had been. We didn’t come to any agreements after that first afternoon, but I liked to think I’d made progress.

When I returned to my hotel room, Rhys was lounging on my bed like he owned it. “What do you want?” I snapped.

“Flirting and giggling with Tarquin all day did you no good, I take it?”

“Isn’t flirting and giggling what you pay me for?” I griped. I rolled my eyes at Rhys’s unamused expression. “I’m not there yet, but I think he’ll work with us. I think he wants to, despite his board of executives.”

“Cresseida is under the impression that he’s quite ambitious, so don’t let him pour honey in your ears and let your guard fall.”

“Oh? Did she tell you that before, during, or after you took her to bed?”

Rhys stood from my bed, his intense eyes fixed on me. “Is that why you won’t look at me? Because you think I fucked her for influence?”

“Influence or your own pleasure, I don’t care.”

He prowled around the bed to stand right in front of me. “Jealous, Feyre?”

“If I’m jealous, then you’re jealous about Tarquin and his honey-pouring.”

“You smiled at him. Repeatedly.”

I blinked in surprise at the ferocity in Rhys’s words. “You are jealous.”

He shook his head and walked over to the mini-bar by the balcony, pouring himself a shot of something I couldn’t identify from here. “I heard what you told him,” he said quietly. “That it would be easy to fall in love with him. You meant it, too.”

“So?”

“I was jealous--of that. That I’m not . . . that sort of person. For anyone.” I thought of our conversation while we’d stood above New York City, how he’d told me he didn’t think anyone would even be interested in being with him, marrying him. “I relate to Tarquin in some ways,” he said, his tone shifting to one more light and casual. “I’m the son of a Jewish immigrant. He’s a black man fighting tooth and nail to succeed in an industry that is stacked against him in a lot of ways, and his struggle has paid off. But . . . Russia.”

I crossed the room to stand beside him. “But Russia,” I agreed.

“It feels like it makes me untouchable, as in . . . no one will ever want to really know, or understand. And I’m sure Tarquin feels that way about some important things in his life, too, but he has Cresseida, and Varian, and a community. I was alone in Russia for two years. Until you got there.” He glanced sideways at me, and his breathing was uneven. “I pray to God Tarquin never knows that loneliness--that he’ll never know what it is to look up at the stars and envy them for their companions.”

Saying nothing, I poured a drink for myself and then refilled his glass. “To the people who look at the stars and wish, Rhys,” I said.

Rhys picked up his glass and fixed his star-flecked gaze on me . . . and it took my breath away. He clinked his glass against mine and said, “To the stars who listen, and the dreams that are answered.”

Chapter Text

 

 

 

2115 30 JAN 2022. New York City, New York, United States of America

Unfortunately the deal with Adriata Enterprises was not to be. Thanks to Varian, Cresseida, and an impressive game of he-said, she-said, Tarquin fell under the impression that Rhys was there to steal his technology and his algorithms. The negotiations had turned hostile fast, especially when Varian had raised doubts about Rhysand’s integrity and had dared bring up Russia, suggesting that perhaps the jury had been wrong in clearing Rhys of charges.

Neither of us had responded well to that.

After I’d showered and unpacked in New York, I left my room to find Rhys lounging in a deck chair on the balcony. I wrapped my warm robe around myself and slid the glass door back. I remembered his words to me from the night I’d first arrived, and though he was nowhere near the railing . . . I didn’t want to take chances. The air was bitter cold--if he stayed out here too long he might hurt himself regardless.

“I know you’re there,” he said. I noticed the bottle of whiskey near his hand and marked the fact that it was half full. He was already quite drunk.

“If you want to be alone with your booze, I can go.”

“I should have done it all differently,” he said, not looking at me and staring instead toward the skyline. “Thought of . . . something else. I made a mistake.”

“It’s not the end of the world if you do that every now and then.” His temper had been rather tremendous--he’d been far too stressed, and his usual composure had slipped his control. I should have done more to ease the situation, but it had spiraled fast.

“Make it up to him in some way--if he’s ever inclined to apologize, that is,” I said. “Clearly, you wanted to be his friend as much as he wanted to be yours. You wouldn’t be so upset otherwise.”

“I’m not upset. I’m pissed off.”

“Semantics.”

Rhys cut his glance toward me, a half-smile on his face.

“I understand why you were angry. I was, too. And--I even understand what you did. In Russia. Why you did it, and why it galls you that it hasn’t gone away.”

“And your point is?”

I winced, but I knew where he was coming from. I recognized it like a memory from my own soul. “Move forward, Rhysand. What happened with Tarquin . . . it was a shame, but it’s not the end of things. We have a lot of other options. We won’t let Springer take away what you’ve built.”

“You sound like you plan to stay here for a while.” We’d never actually discussed the length of my employment but . . . I supposed I had started to see this as a long-term thing.

“I can get my own apartment, if I’m under your skin. Maybe I’ll use that generous paycheck to get something lavish.” I silently begged him to take the bait, to go a round with me, anything to chase those shadows from his eyes, the frown from his mouth.

“But whatever you wish. But yourself a whole damn house if you want.” Good luck finding one in New York, he didn’t need to add.

“I saw a pretty shop down on East 61st the other day. It sold what looked like a lot of lacy little things. Am I allowed to buy that on your credit, or does that come out of my own personal funds?”

Rhys took another swig from his glass. “I’m not in the mood.”

But I knew--just by looking at him, and from months of being linked to the bracelet around his wrist--that I had stirred something. Just not his sense of humor. But I wasn’t going to give up on him. Not when . . . not when he hadn’t given up on me.

I walked around to lean on the balcony in front him, locking eyes with him. “I never knew millionaires were such morose drunks.”

“I’m not drunk--I’m drinking,” he corrected, but there it was--a slight glint in his eye.

“Again, semantics. At least the whiskey chases off the blues and lonelies, am I right?”

“So you’re entitled to have as many bad days as you want, but I can’t get a few hours?”

“Oh, take however long you want to mope. I was going to invite you to come shopping with me at--I think Agent Provocateur was the name?--for said lacy little unmentionables, but . . . sit up here forever, if you have to.” He didn’t respond, but his fingers twitched. “Maybe I’ll send a few to Tarquin--with an offer to wear them for him if he takes back his comments about your integrity.”

“Someone thinks mighty highly of herself.”

“I thought that was obvious. Besides, you seem to have difficulty not staring at me day and night.” My own heart rate fluttered--as for the first time I addressed the tension that sometimes arose between us.

Rhys set his glass down and fixed his eyes on me. “Am I supposed to deny that I find you attractive?”

“You’ve never said it.”

“I’ve told you many times, and quite frequently, how attractive I find you.”

I shrugged, though my blood had warmed even in the cold air. I’d always thought he was teasing, trying to distract me from the shadows that always lingered a thought away. “Well, maybe you should do a better job of it.”

Rhys set his feet on the ground and braced his forearms on his thighs. His voice was low and skated over my skin. “Is that a challenge, Feyre?”

I didn’t dare look away. “Is it?”

I’d succeeded in chasing away the sadness, the shadows, but--could I weather what had replaced it? His eyes dropped from my eyes, to my mouth, to my throat, his lips parted just slightly. I knew that if I hadn’t left my bracelet in the bathroom, it would be telling him exactly how his intense gaze was affecting me. “Why don’t we go down to that store right now, Feyre, so you can try on those lacy little things--so I can help you pick which one to send to Tarquin.”

My toes curled in my slippers, and I could barely feel the cold January wind. I was about to answer him--maybe to take him up on his offer--when there was a pounding on the door.

I jerked upright--I hadn’t realized I’d been leaning toward him--and hurried to answer the door, letting Azriel in to check in with Rhys now that he’d returned. I didn’t go back out to join them. My toes were cold and I didn’t think I could stand on that little balcony with Rhys anymore, not with whatever had just happened between us. I shucked off my robe and climbed under the blankets, but just as I turned out the light my phone vibrated beside my bed.

What greeted me was an image--a collection of images, actually. A complete, matching set of red lace lingerie. When I looked at the source, I saw the name of the store. Agent Provocateur. The store I’d taunted Rhys with. And the images had been sent from his phone, with the following message:

I think Tarquin would like these. I know I do.

I sent my preferred vulgar emoji--in my top three most-used now--and could only imagine the sound of his laughter as I buried myself in my blankets to sleep.

-

0200 31 JAN 2022. New York City, New York, United States of America

My phone started buzzing wildly in the middle of the night. I tried to ignore it, but it was insistent. I blinked away sleep and sat up on one elbow, reaching for my phone and unlocking it--only to find an emergency banner pasted across the screen from the Vitalty app.

ATTN: USER knightcourt EXPERIENCING UNUSUAL SPIKE IN HEART RATE, MUSCLE TENSION. CONFIRM HEALTH STATUS.

It took a moment too long for the message to click in my brain, but the moment it had, I leapt out of bed and hurried down the hall to Rhys’s room, which I thankfully found unlocked. His own phone was beeping beside his bed as his Vitality bracelet sent it alarming data as he slept. “Rhysand?” I called. The room was dark and I struggled to find my way across, but then my shin banged into the bed. “Rhysand,” I said louder over the beeping. I reached for him, trying to see what was causing the trouble, and my hand met with his taut leg--tense, almost solid as stone and just as cold. Not relaxed as in sleep.

Something was very wrong.

I climbed up on my knees on the bed beside him. I ran my hand up his body--I could feel his heart thundering against his chest, but I held my hand over his face to feel if he was breathing. A cold blast of breath confirmed that he wasn’t suffocating.

No--he was asleep. But . . . having a nightmare.

I had to wake him up, but he hadn’t even stirred when I’d called his name or practically climbed on him. So I reached out and slapped him, as I had in the car over a month ago--but nothing. I almost did it again, but then suddenly he was moving. He was on top of me, pinning me to the bed with his hands gripping either side of my face like he would snap my neck. My own panic fluttered at the visceral memory, but I forced it back down. Rhys was more important right now. And I realized . . . realized he wasn’t trying to break me, but hold me together, hold me in place . . . as he had in Russia.

I reached up and put my hand above his heart, careful not to move my body beneath him. I traced my hand over his neck and shoulder in a soothing motion. “It’s a dream,” I said. “It was a dream.” At a loss for anything else that would calm him, I hummed the melody of that symphony he had once sent me, that we’d heard in Rockefeller Plaza on my birthday. And his hands began to slacken at the sides of my face. “Feyre,” I said. “I’m Feyre.” His heart still raced against my palm, but his gasping breath was starting to calm. “Please, it’s all right.”

Then his eyes, which had been open but unseeing, cleared. He blinked several times, and when he realized how he was holding me, he snatched his hands away and sat back on his heels. My breath caught in my throat when I realized he was naked. I forced myself not to look, and noticed instead the tattooed mountains and stars on his knees. I’d never seen them before--in all the hours we’d spent training in the gym, I’d never seen him in shorts.

“Feyre,” he rasped, drawing my eyes back to his face.

“Yes,” I said, sitting up. “You were having a nightmare.”

He stared at his own hands in horror. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologize. Vitality woke me up. I had to make sure you were all right.” Rhys’s eyes traveled to his phone on his bedside table, which still glowed red but had stopped beeping. I bit my lip and asked, “How often does it happen?”

Rhys looked up at me, though he still hung his head. “As often as you.” My heart twisted in my chest. And I found myself wondering if Vitality had done that every night I had had a nightmare this summer, if it had woken him every night, and he’d been unable to check on me . . .

“What did you dream of tonight?”

Rhys looked away from me, toward the view of the skyline out his window. “There are memories from Russia, Feyre, that are better left unshared. Even with you.”

I made to slide off the bed, and as I passed him I put an arm on his elbow. “When you want to talk, let me know. I won’t tell the others.”

As I slipped away, Rhys took my hand to stop me, his touch so gentle and careful. “Thank you.”

I looked over his pained face, which showed for the first time the torment I knew he’d felt after our ordeal, that he’d never let me or anyone else see. And before I could think it over, I leaned in and kissed him once on his cold cheek--comfort, nothing more or less. But Rhys seemed a bit stunned nonetheless, and he didn’t stop me from leaving this time. I glanced back once from the door, and for the first time since Russia, the sight of him, kneeling on his bed with the moonlight anointing his drooping shoulders, formed an image, a painting in my mind. And it lingered.

Before crawling back to bed, I acknowledged the alert on Vitality. And before it blinked off, the screen flashed green and read: USER knightcourt STABLE. THANK YOU.

Stable, I thought, was a relative term. But I hoped he would at least get some sleep.

-

1845 21 JAN 2022. New York City, New York, United States of America

The next morning, Rhys left early for the office, but he left a note in his elegant handwriting on the breakfast bar: Thank you--for last night.

I’d texted him after he’d showered and written, I want to learn what you do.

It was a while before he responded, You know what I do, darling.

Sort of. Not really. I want to know HOW you do what you do. The coding, the . . . design. It’ll help me do my job better.

Truthfully, I did my job just fine without knowing how all the wires and programming worked, but . . . there was so much about what he did late at night when he thought no one was awake to notice that I wanted to understand. He designed most of his products--the best ones, at least. It was to him what painting had been to me, once.

He came home that evening with a stack of books on the basics of programming. I paled when I saw the pile, but he’d just smiled and said, “If you have any questions, just ask.”

“You went to college for this, didn’t you?” I asked, sipping my chamomile tea.

Rhys shrugged one shoulder as he dropped his workbag beside the couch with a thud. “Yes, but you don’t need to be in school to learn. Did you learn to paint in school?”

I ducked my head. “The basics. The rest I taught myself. Or, well . . .” I blushed, too embarrassed to admit the truth.

“What?” Rhys asked, bracing his arms on the breakfast bar and trying to meet my eye.

“I . . . I watched Bob Ross videos on YouTube at the library. I did it a lot after my mom died.”

Rhys smiled. “Bob Ross was great. Don’t be embarrassed about that.” He paused before adding, “Did you know he was a soldier?”

I finally looked up to meet Rhys’s eyes. “He was?”

Rhys nodded sagely, sipping from the glass of water he’d poured for himself. “A master sergeant in the air force.”

I bit my lip. Part of me wanted to laugh, and another wanted to ask how on earth Rhys knew that. But another, small part found some sort of relief at the idea that my childhood hero had once been a soldier and still found it in him to paint wonderful things. “There was a time when all I wanted was enough money to keep me and my family fed so that I could spend my days painting. That was all I wanted. Ever.”

“And now?” Rhys asked softly.

“Now, I don’t know what I want. I can’t paint anymore.”

“Why?” I could see in Rhys’s eyes that he was remembering all the times I hurried past street art or the fact that I’d never once visited the Met despite the fact that it was only a few blocks away from his apartment. And, of course, the fact that I’d been living with him for four months now and hadn’t picked up a paintbrush at all.

“Because . . . that part of me is empty.” The words were hard to say, so I swallowed another gulp of warm tea. A heavy silence hung in the air as Rhys waited to see if I would continue, but I had nothing else to add--or no words that would express what I was feeling. “Did you always want . . . this?” I gestured vaguely to the apartment, his bag, my mug with his company’s logo on it.

Rhys gave a half-smile. “If you’re asking if I expected to end up like this, no. I was always tinkering, when I was younger--when Cassian wasn’t dragging me to sports practice and such. My father tolerated it, but he always hoped I’d go into politics like him. I considered it for a while, honestly--no matter what, I knew I wanted to help people, and government seemed as good a way as any. I majored in political science my first semester at Drexel, but I took an elective that convinced me to switch to biomedical engineering after that. I kept poli-sci as a minor to keep my father happy, though.”

“That sounds . . . difficult.”

Rhys’s lips twisted in a smile and he pushed his hand through his hair. “It was not . . . the best time. Very stressful. But it led to this.” He tapped the Vitality bracelet on my wrist. “This is what I’ve always wanted to do. Russia . . . Russia changed the nature of it, perhaps. But . . . this is everything.” The burning hope in those words, the rawness of it . . . it made me reach out and take his hand in mine.

“So Knight Tech?” I prompted.

Rhys ran his thumb over the back of my hand once and said, “An accident, mostly. It existed previously as Hewn City Technologies, started up by a member of my fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi. Only he decided to go . . . a different route.” Shadows flitted across his eyes. “He’d already gotten the communication tech angle nailed down, but was struggling to make it stand out. I . . . made it stand out. It wasn’t medical tech, like I was studying, but it was a foot in the door. Then it became everything.”

“Do you regret that? The way it ended up happening?”

“No,” Rhys said easily. “Especially not now that Vitality’s out there, that I’ve been able to blend the two . . . I just wish it wasn’t so damn complicated.” I didn’t have to ask how he meant.

I pulled my hand away and took the last sip of my tea. “Well, at least you make up for your shameless flirting by being one hell of a businessman.”

Rhys’s face snapped up, a delighted grin on his face. “One hell of a businessman? Feyre darling, is that a compliment?”

I scoffed and turned away so he couldn’t see me blush. I padded around the breakfast bar to head toward my room. “Please. You have a big enough ego as it is.”

“I’ve been told that. I’ve also been informed I have a big head. And,” he added, his grin turning positively wicked, “some particularly lucky ladies have told me I have a big--”

He couldn’t finished the sentence before I seized the cup of water on the counter and splashed it in his face. He burst into laughter and shook the water from his hair. I darted away before he could mention what I hadn’t seen in the shadows the night before.

 

-

1730 08 MAR 2022. New York City, New York, United States of America

I returned from my meetings downtown some weeks later to find that Rhys had beaten me home. He was sitting on the couch, leaned forward, his face grim.

“What’s the matter?” I asked, immediately on edge as I dropped my keys on the counter.

Rhys looked up at me and sighed. “We need to take another trip.”

“Oh?” I asked. “Where to?”

“Philadelphia.”

“Why do you look so upset about it?” I asked, crossing my arms over my chest.

“Because,” Rhys said, “this isn’t Knight Tech business.”

I blinked, and my arms fell to my sides. “Oh.”

“Yes. Oh.”

“What kind of business is it, then?”

Rhys ran his hand through his hair and leaned back on the couch. “Azriel’s finally dug up a contact that might be able to help with the whole Springer mess.” He flexed his jaw. “Her name is Verity Black, and I knew her when I was at Drexel. She’s brilliant, a programmer and hacker like no one I’ve ever met.”

“A hacker? What, like Anonymous?” I asked. “WikiLeaks?”

Rhys let out a dry chuckle. “You would have to work hard to connect her to either, but that’s by design. That’s exactly the kind of people she runs with.”

“She could help you release the files Springer’s suppressing?”

“Maybe,” Rhys said, “but the trick is getting to her. She’s a prized resource, closely guarded by her employer, a man known only as Orb.”

I snorted. “Great nickname.”

Rhys nodded vaguely. “Especially when you know his real name is Zachary Orenstein. He’s the one I bought Knight Tech from.”

“He was in your fraternity,” I said, remembering the conversation.

“Emphasis on was. He had some . . . behavioral issues. Not much worse than the rest of us, truthfully, but he got caught. He was asked to remove himself. Later, he dropped out altogether, became something of an anarchist. But he developed a following on the deep web. This isn’t known to many--even I wasn’t aware until Azriel uncovered it--but he now owns a nightclub in Philadelphia, which is a front for his hacking network. Verity is his most valued asset.”

“All right,” I said as I sank into the chair across from Rhys. “What does that mean for us?”

“You, me, Azriel, and Mor have to go pay Verity a visit.”

“You mean go to the nightclub?”

“Yes,” Rhys confirmed. “Except only Az and Mor will be speaking to Verity.”

My brow furrowed. “Then what will we be doing?” I tried not to think too much about how it sounded to refer to Rhys and myself as we.

Rhys let out a frustrated breath. “We’ll be distracting Orb. There’s no way he’s letting anyone speak to Verity without him knowing exactly what’s going on, and we don’t want him knowing what’s going on. I trust Verity, but I do not trust Orb.”

I slung my arms over my knees and bent forward. “How exactly do we distract Orb?”

“By making him think I’m just like him. The overstressed frat boy with no impulse control and a lack of regard for anyone’s dignity.” The disgust curling Rhys’s lips troubled me. “What I have to be, who I have to become, is not . . . it’s not something I want you to see. How I’ll treat you, treat others . . .”

I kept my eyes fixed on him, even though he didn’t look up at me. “Why don’t you want me to see that?”

“Because you’ve only started to look at me like I’m not a monster, and I can’t stomach the idea of anything you see putting you back in the place where I found you.”

Where he’d found me . . . broken, defeated, waiting for death. I waited for a trickle of those old feelings to come at the thought of such a relapse, but none came. I could only think that it would have to be one hell of a strip club to set me back so far. “Let me help. In whatever way I can.”

Rhys still didn’t meet my eyes, and his expression was dark. “The role you will have to play is not a pleasant one.”

“I trust you.” I moved to sit beside him on the couch, and I heard his breath catch in his chest. “Why did Mor look so disturbed when I passed her in the hall?”

Rhys hesitated to answer, but I could see it was pain that held his tongue. “The company Orb keeps brings back a lot of memories for her. Bad ones. Orb will hack anyone for the right price, and when Mor was at her lowest--after her show ended and her parents forced her into that relationship with Mark Eris--he hacked her.”

“What did he get?” I asked, my blood already chilling in my veins.

Rhys massaged his temples. “A sex tape. With Cassian.”

I let out a strangled snort-gasp. “What?

Rhys groaned and said. “It was an utter mess. I had brought him with me to visit her in California on one of his leaves from duty. She’d been miserable in her life, in her relationship, and was desperate to choose something for herself. So she chose Cassian. Then, when Orb hacked her and their affair was revealed . . . things got bad. Mark beat her, her father cut her off, her label dropped her. It was all over the tabloids. She took a bus to San Diego where Azriel was stationed, looking like she’d been run over by a tractor-trailer. He called me, and I helped check her into rehab, helped pay for it . . . because she needed to get away from it all. The toxic people, the prying, the lack of privacy. She healed, after a while, and now look at her. But she’s very aware that if Orb hadn’t interfered and stolen that video from her, things wouldn’t have gotten so bad so fast.

“Verity got revenge for her by hacking Ianthe, which is the only reason she’s willing to go at all. But it won’t be easy for her, especially since her father, Michael Keir, also lives in Philadelphia and has a bad habit of always running into her while she’s there.”

I thought of Mor, how confident and strong and wonderful she was. When I thought of what she had been through, I admired her all the more . . . and it filled me with a strong desire to see Orb served some of his own medicine. I took Rhys’s hand in mine and I saw some of the tension release from his shoulders, though not from his jaw or his eyes. “Tell me what I have to do.”

And with one last sigh, Rhysand did.

Chapter Text

 

 

CHAPTER FOURTEEN - THE DISTRACTION

0130 12 MAR 2022. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States of America

Mor and I arrived ahead of Rhys and Azriel at Orb’s nightclub three nights later. The sign glowed in purple neon above us: Court of Nightmares. Mor’s face was closed off as she showed our IDs and gave our names to the bouncer. Mor looked ravishing in a low cut red minidress and heels--her legs went on for days. I was thankful for her, because I’d had no idea what to wear. She’d put me in a backless black crop top with a gold chain connecting it across my back. It was low-cut in front, and I found myself fidgeting with it in the car on the way over before Mor had reminded me that I wouldn’t be able to get away with that once we arrived. My skirt clung to my hips down to my knees, but there was a long slit up the right side that went all the way to the waistband. I wore lower heels than Mor’s and she’d swept up my hair away from my face into a twisted crown above my hand. Loose tendrils tickled the back of my neck. I was also wearing more makeup than I’d ever worn except perhaps on my failed wedding day--Mor’s expertise with winged eyeliner and red lipstick was incredible.

Once we were inside the club--which was dark and flashing and already very loud, though we were among the first to arrive--we were approached by a man who was perhaps thirty, though for some reason he looked older. He had blonde hair swept across his forehead and his shirt was surprisingly rumpled. Nevertheless, he held himself with authority and the bouncers nodded at him as he approached.

“If it isn’t Morrigan Keir,” the man said, a catlike grin on his face. “Never thought I’d see you here again. I do believe I was expecting Knight, however.”

“He’s coming. He keeps his own calendar, Orb, you know that,” Mor said coolly.

Orb finally noticed me, and he swept his eyes up and down my body. If he recognized me, he said nothing. I didn’t speak to him.

Mor led me to the bar and we ordered martinis as we waited, lingering by the couches off the dance floor. I felt plenty of eyes on the both of us. Even if I wasn’t recognizable to them, Mor certainly was. My stomach roiled as I realized why that was.

But all their attention was drawn away from us as light poured in from the door once again. Azriel walked in, looking almost like a bouncer himself, followed by . . .

Rhysand.

The way he held himself, his hands folded behind his back as he scanned the room, chin tilted up as though everyone here was below him . . . I hadn’t seen him look that way since Russia. The was no sign of the man who had been drinking on the balcony; no sign of the fallen prince kneeling on his bed. His cold, imperious face was a dream and a nightmare.

The murmuring that had picked up at Azriel’s entrance died as everyone there recognized him--knew his reputation, earned or otherwise. And wondered what on earth he was doing here. Dancers and waiters eyed him, knowing of his wealth, and I could see them scheming, wondering how to get him to spend his money on them. But he paid none of them mind. Instead, he met my eyes once before turning to greet Orb, who was practically pissing himself in delight. “It’s good to see you back on home turf, Knight,” he said, his smile revealing unusually pointed canines. “Even better to see you’ve decided to visit your old brother.”

Rhys’s face betrayed no emotion, but I knew what he was thinking. He did not consider Orb a brother at all, not after what he’d done to Mor. To Cassian. The latter were his real family. But Rhys indulged the owner as he needed to.

“See anyone you’d like to accompany you for this evening? I know all of my dancers would be happy to oblige.”

“I have someone in mind,” Rhys said, his voice like ice. Then his eyes flicked to me with predatory focus. He prowled across the room to me, Orb in his wake, and stopped just before me. Even with the heels, my eyes were only in line with his throat. So he hooked his finger under my chin and lifted my face so his violet eyes locked with mine. “Welcome to the Court of Nightmares, Feyre Archeron.”

Orb did a double-take; he hadn’t recognized me, then. I could see the switch in him as he hurried to catalogue every interaction between us, looking to see how he could use the information to his own benefit.

Good. It was exactly what we wanted.

Mor and Azriel had already disappeared.

Orb ushered us to a private corner of couches he’d reserved for us. Wine was already set out, and the wait staff lingered nearby. Rhys took a seat and then gracefully pulled me to sit on his lap. “We grew rather close in Russia,” Rhys purred to Orb.

Yes. This. The lie we had decided upon, the persona I was to adopt. It would be so tempting to Orb that he wouldn’t even pay attention to Mor or Azriel. I knew the information would likely get out, wouldn’t stay here, but it would either be passed off as rumors or it would be old news--perhaps no one cared about America’s Hero anymore. That would be good.

Rhys’s hand wrapped around the bare skin on my left side--not the side with scars from where Amarantha had broken my ribs and punctured my skin. His right hand was positioned on my thigh, right at the opening of that dangerous slit up my leg. My breath was shallow as he leaned in to bring his mouth near my ear. As he stroked my waist with his thumb in slow circles, he whispered, “Don’t let it go to your head.”

“What?” I asked, my heart hammering to the bass line.

“That every male in here is contemplating what they’d be willing to give up in order to get that pretty, red mouth of yours on them.”

Indeed, I could see the eyes of the straight men in the club glancing at us periodically. The envy was written across their mouths. It was . . . thrilling. I flashed a smile.

Rhys’s hand slipped into the gap of the slit on my skirt, caressing my thigh with his fingertips. He’d apologized for it, discussed this in advance with me. But that didn’t stop the tiny shiver that ran up my body when I felt his fingertips on my inner thigh.

Orb cleared his throat. “I’d love to catch up, Rhysand. You’ve truly done wonders with Hewn City--excuse me, Knight Tech. I knew it was a good choice to sell.”

Yes. Rhys was now a millionaire and all Orb had was a flashy nightclub and hacking network. It was clear who was the better off between the two. “You’ve certainly built something here, too,” Rhys murmured. It was an edged compliment. He leaned in and bit down just slightly on my earlobe as he thumb stroked the inside of my thigh. It all affected me more than I expected and I leaned back, pressing closer to his body.

We’d both left our bracelets at home . . . but I knew exactly the kind of data it would be receiving if I was wearing it.

But Rhys didn’t need the data to read me. He heard the change in my breathing, and his thumb stilled on my leg.

I couldn’t hear anything between the pounding of the music and my body’s reactions. Orb’s mouth moved but I could hear nothing. Rhys seemed to, since he was nodding vaguely as Orb went on about something or other. But I did hear it when Orb said, “I had heard the rumors, but I didn’t quite believe them. It seems America’s Hero has a taste for the dark side.”

“You should see how I make her beg,” Rhys murmured, nudging my neck with his nose.

“If the other rumors are true, you’ll need to keep her on a tight leash,” Orb chortled.

I stiffened. “Perhaps I’ll put you on a leash.” Orb blinked, startled at my retort.

“She does enjoy playing,” Rhys said as he stroked my waist. “She prefers red wine,” he said pointedly.

Off-kilter, Orb stood and said, “I’ll take care of that right away.”

Neither of us changed position or attitude, but Rhys pressed a small kiss beneath my ear--an apology. For all of this. He hated going back to the person he had been in college, when his habits and relationships had been destructive and dark. It saddened me to see him like this, too, to know that he had once been in such a dark place, even before Russia. But if it would get Azriel a chance to speak with Verity, if it would help clear Rhys’s name . . . I didn’t mind stepping into the shadows.

I twisted around to see his face, cast in red light from the dance floor. He was stone-faced, unimpressed . . . nothing of the Rhys I knew in sight. He saw me studying him and raised one eyebrow. I leaned in and whispered, “You are good, Rhys. You are kind. This mask does not scare me. I see you beneath it.”

I was worried he wouldn’t hear me through the intensity of the music, but he trailed his lips over my cheek in thanks. And I found that in this short time I had become addicted to the contact with him, more drunk on it than I was from the martini I’d had earlier. So I leaned even more against him, my legs spreading apart even more so that my right leg fully escaped the slit of my skirt. “Why’d you stop?”

There was a tremor in his chest and he stroked my waist again, this time letting his thumb dip up under the loose material of my crop top, enough to graze the underside of my breast.

I let my head drop back against his shoulder, melting into the pulse of the music, writhing in time to the twisted melodies. Above me, I could see the tightness of his jaw, the glazed look in his eyes--and I could smell him, the citrus and jasmine . . . my hand gripped his thigh, the powerful muscles I’d only glimpsed in his bed that night, and then I stroked up toward his hip.

The hand that had been cupping my waist slid down and hooked into the band of my skirt--which had inched a bit lower as I’d squirmed on his lap. I bit my lip as I looked out at the clubgoers, many of whom were staring at us, not caring to be subtle. I didn’t care what they thought anymore as I drowned in the music and Rhys’s touch. I just wanted more more more.

Then my eyes fell on Orb, who was lingering at a nearby wall, a glass of red wine in his hand. Staring at us. I stared back, and so did Rhys. Rhys’s tongue slithered out and caressed my neck. My back arched, and Rhys’s hand was still in my skirt, stroking, higher, too high--

I writhed again in his lap, trying to keep his fingers from brushing my g-string, the only undergarment I wore--it was already soaked. But when I shifted . . .

I felt Rhys, hard and insistent, against my backside. I wanted to melt like candle wax, completely undone by the thought of him, wanting to feel him more. I turned and didn’t even know that I’d made the decision to do it before I licked up the column of his throat, tasting him.

In my ear, Rhys let out a hoarse laugh, and he kissed the back of my neck just as his hand drifted up to discover my secret.

He stilled. I stilled. “It’s fine,” he rasped in my ear, too quiet for anyone but me to hear. “It means nothing. It’s just your body reacting--”

“Because you’re so irresistible?” I asked. The words burned as they left my throat. This . . . we’d done this to ourselves. Danced around and taunted and teased for months. I had thought that was all it was, but the taste of him on my tongue, the feel of him against me . . . I was going to unravel right here in front of all these people, America’s Hero in the lap of Rhysand Knight. It would be scandalous, delicious, and--

And everyone would know. Even Tamlin.

For some damned reason, that thought alone caused some of the heat to leak out of my pores, and I was too relieved when I saw Mor and Azriel emerge from the crowd, looking for all the world as though they’d just snuck off for a little privacy. Rhys gave me a little nudge, encouraging me to go off and find them.

My knees almost buckled beneath me as I stepped away from the couches, right past Orb. As I passed, I heard him laugh to himself. “Who’d have thought? America’s Hero is really America’s Whore.”

There was a crash behind me. I turned to see that Rhys had stood up so fast he’d flipped the table, sending the bottle of champagne to shatter on the ground. And then he had Orb pinned to the wall by the throat.

The music stopped. The house lights came on. And everyone stared in stunned horror at the dark, muscled man gripping the neck of the nightclub owner. Security prowled in and I stepped closer to Rhys on instinct, but Orb waved his goons away. “Apologize,” Rhys hissed. Orb said nothing, and Rhys jolted him against the wall. “I said, apologize.”

Still nothing. Then in a swift motion that I recognized from training with Cassian, Rhys pulled Orb’s arm behind his back. Then he twisted.

Orb squealed and whimpered, but just before Rhys snapped his wrist, he locked eyes with me and rasped, “I’m sorry.”

The crack that sounded as Orb’s wrist when limb sent a phantom pain shooting through my left hand, which Amarantha had broken apart piece by piece. Rhys let Orb drop to the ground, and some of his employees hurried over to helped him as Rhys stepped over him like he was garbage. The man had passed out.

Then Rhys crossed the club to me and took my elbow, guiding me from the club as the scores of patrons stared after us. And I did not cringe away from their stares. I held Rhys’s arm tightly, not repelled by him or scared of him in the slightest. I knew this man, every angle of him, and I was not frightened.

But a murmur in the back of my mind made me wonder if I should be.

-

0500 13 MAR 2022. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States of America

The city whipped by outside as Rhys and I rode in silence back to New York. After over half an hour of not a word, I heard him murmur, “I’m sorry.”

I turned to look at him. “What do you possibly have to be sorry for?”

His hands gripped his legs, skin paling. “I shouldn’t have let you go. Let you see that part of me.” He looked genuinely shaken, but I couldn’t understand why.

“I’m fine.” He had warned me, but I’d chosen to come, and I didn’t regret it. “We knew what tonight would require of us. Please--please don’t start . . . protecting me. Not like that.” Though there had been some kind of thrill in seeing him pin Orb to the wall, that violent protective instinct . . . I hadn’t seen it from him before, not even when he’d protected me from the paparazzi. But I had seen it in someone else.

His jaw tensed as he understood me. “I will never--never lock you up, force you to stay behind. But when he said that, when he called you . . .”

I knew the word. I’d heard it in many languages by now, too, and so had Rhys. That’s what he’d been called, for years . . . what he was still called in certain circles.

“I should have known. Should have prepared myself for it,” he said, staring at his hands as he folded them over his lap.

“Yes, you should have,” I snapped. I had been prepared for the stares, for the gossip, going in. I knew Rhys hated Orb, hated the nightclub scene in general, but this was hardly the first time his reputation from Russia had been thrown in his face. “You seemed to be going along just fine with it, until Orb said--”

“I will kill anyone who harms you,” Rhys snarled, snapping his gaze up to match mine. “I will kill them, and take a damn long time doing it. Go ahead. Hate me--despise me for it.”

I leaned back against the car door, affronted. “You are my friend,” I said, not understanding the tears that escaped my eyes. Maybe they were because . . . because it had all been an act for him, and it had gone too far and that was why he’d snapped. Maybe because I had hoped for a moment that part of it had been real. “You’re my friend--and I understand that you have a lot of responsibilities, that you’re trying hard to put everything back together after Russia. But I can’t . . . I don’t want you to stop telling me things, inviting me to do things, because you want to keep me in one piece--one place.” That would be why he had attacked Orb, because he was struggling hard enough with my reputation that he didn’t need to worry about mine on top of it--didn’t want my portion of the card tower to topple down.

Rhys twisted in his seat to face me fully, his face torment. “I will never be him, act like him. He locked you up and let you wither, and die.”

“He tried--”

“Stop comparing. Stop comparing me to him.”

The car was suddenly silent.

“You think I don’t know how the stories get written--how this story will be written?” Rhys put one hand on his chest and gestured vaguely out the window with the other. “I am the traitor, the whore, who stole away the hero’s bride. I am a demon, and a nightmare, and I will meet a bad end.” Rhys’s violet eyes glistened--with tears? “He is the golden prince--the hero who will get to keep you as his reward for not dying of stupidity and arrogance.”

“And what about my story?” I demanded. He spoke of himself, of Tamlin--but me? I was the object passing between them, presented with no choices of her own. “What about my reward? What about what I want?”

Rhys flexed his jaw. “What is it you want, Feyre?”

I shrank away from his demand. I had no answer. I didn’t know. Not anymore.

“What is it that you want, Feyre?”

I turned to stare out the window, seeing nothing in the blackness of early morning.

Behind me, Rhys laughed bitterly. “I thought so. Perhaps you should take some time to figure that out one of these days.”

Incensed, I whirled to face him again. “Perhaps I don’t know what I want, but at least I don’t hide what I am behind a mask,” I seethed. “At least I let them see who I am, broken bits and all. Yes--it’s to protect your company. But what about the other masks, Rhys? What about letting your friends see your real face?” Rhys straightened. “But maybe it’s easier not to,” I went on. “Because what if you did let someone in? And what if they saw everything, and still walked away? Who could blame them--who would want to bother with that sort of mess?”

Rhys flinched. The words lingered in the air.

But I could not take them back. Though I wanted to. “Rhys,” I said.

“We’ll be home soon.”

Home. I waited to hear myself argue that New York wasn’t home, but . . . the view. The park. The glittering harbor. The skyline with the lights . . .

I did have a home. With him.

Or I had.

In the moment it took me to realize this, Rhys had turned away and closed his eyes, pretending to sleep as the car sped through the night.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

1315 16 MAR 2022. New York City, New York, United States of America

It didn’t take much time at all for me to begin feeling awful. We arrived back in New York around six thirty in the morning, and even though I was dead tired, I had trouble going to sleep, knowing how awful I’d been to Rhys. What I’d said to him, about being a mess . . . that hadn’t been about him after all. I was the mess. I wanted him--there was absolutely no point in denying that to myself anymore. It was why I’d been jealous of Cresseida, why my heart rate spiked every time he looked at me. And even though I still felt . . . felt like I shouldn’t, like I should still be getting over Tamlin . . . all I wanted in the world was to see him smile at me again.

I wanted to tell him all of that. But he was gone when I finally dragged myself out of bed the next day. And he didn’t come home after work. I went out the following day to try and get some fresh air--and I might have wandered by the office to see if he was putting in weekend hours. But still nothing.

I texted him eventually. I want to talk to you.

No response. Not wanting to wait around like a fool, I went further downtown to Amren’s apartment in the Meatpacking District. “Ah. The reason why Rhys bit my head off this morning.”

“Where’s he gone off to?”

“Discussing Azriel’s discoveries with him.”

“Has he told you anything?”

Amren scoffed. “Girl, I am still with the CIA. I don’t need to know where he gets his information from. I’m more interested in who was following you around that night?”

I almost slid down the wall I was leaning against. “What?” I gasped.

“Don’t be too shocked. Springer’s had eyes on the two of you for months.”

“And Rhys knew?” I asked, my blood heating.

“No. He wasn’t surprised when I told him, though.” Amren picked dirt out from under her nails. “I recommended to him that you get out of New York for a little while. So he’s planning another . . . trip.”

I wrinkled my nose. That didn’t exactly sound appealing after the disaster in Philadelphia. “Where to?”

Amren smirked. “He wants you to pitch Vitality at Fort Drum.”

“Which is . . . where?”

“Up by Canada, past the mountains. Middle of nowhere. You’re leaving on Sunday.”

I sighed. “Sounds fun. Why there? Why not Fort Dix?” I asked, naming the base in New Jersey.

“He figures Springer is less likely to expect you to go there. But really, you ought to be asking him this.”

“I would if he’d talk to me.”

Amren just shook her head to say she did not want to get involved or hear about it.

“Why not just go up today?” I asked.

“Because tomorrow night is Purim. The first one he’s been able to celebrate since getting back. He’s expected at the ball.”

“The . . . ball?”

Amren just growled and waved her hand. “Go bother Mor for the details. Cassian can’t shut up about how drunk he’s going to get and it’s driving me insane.” I took that as an invitation to leave, but Amren said, “When Rhys came back from Russia, he was a ghost. He pretended he wasn’t, but he was. You made him come alive again.”

I was surprised by how much the words hurt, especially when they were meant to do the opposite. “He’s lucky to have all of you.”

“No,” she said. “We are lucky to have him.”

“He thinks he’ll be remembered as the villain in the story.”

Amren snorted.

“But I forgot to tell him,” I said as I opened the door, “that the villain is usually the person who locks up the maiden and throws away the key.”

“Oh?”

“He was the one who let me out.”

-

 

1400 17 MAR 2022. New York City, New York, United States of America

Even though she’d told me she was coming over, I was still surprised when Mor breezed in the next afternoon, positively giddy. It was such a stark change from her attitude in Philadelphia that I almost got whiplash.

I’d been in a sour mood anyway, because there had still been no sign of Rhys and I’d been texting him all day, trying to get a response out of him. Teasing, snarking, eventually bitter. No response from any of them. I’d been obsessively checking Vitality to make sure he was all right wherever he was, but there was no sign of change in him. He was just ignoring me.

Not that I could blame him.

It was hard to stay grumpy with Mor chattering away about how excited she was for the ball and how wonderful it was that I was going. I had to stop her at one point and beg her to explain.

“The Purim Ball at the Jewish Museum!” she squealed. “It’s such a fantastic event, even for us Gentiles.”

“Why are we going, though?” I asked.

“You’re Rhys’s plus one! Usually I am but I couldn’t blame him for choosing you this year. And Azriel took pity on me and invited me.” I raised my eyebrows conspiratorially but she made a point of ignoring it. “I was there the year Rhys was one of their honorees for the work he’d done building Knight Tech, and his philanthropy.”

“So it’s . . . a holiday, right?” I asked, trying to picture the calendar stuck to the fridge. It had appeared after New Year’s, and I hadn’t gotten around to asking Rhys about it.

“The best holiday! Beats Hanukkah, in my opinion,” Mor said with a wink. As she started brushing my hair she began explaining the point of the holiday, how it started with Esther and had become so much more, symbolizing the survival of the Jewish people over repeated threats.

“I thought Azriel was the only religious one,” I said.

“Purim is cultural, too,” Mor said, “but . . . since coming home, Rhys has been . . . thinking about it, more. He was raised Orthodox but didn’t really keep up with it after his mom died--besides joining Alpha Epsilon Pi. He hasn’t said much to me about it, but I’ve noticed.”

I made a thoughtful noise and let Mor start on my makeup. Soon enough she had me dressed in a beautiful silver-blue gown decorated with hundreds of little crystals. The dress itself was gorgeous enough, but more than that . . . I looked beautiful in it. I’d gained back the weight I had lost, and it showed--I had curves again, didn’t seem so sallow. Mor was practically in tears when she looked me over and then wrapped me in a tight hug.

The two of us took a car to the Jewish Museum, which was all lit up for the occasion. Mor said the guys would meet us there. When we stepped out of the car, Cassian and Azriel were there to greet us--both to my surprise, in tuxes. Cassian greeted me heartily before turning to a stranger nearby. Mor breezed ahead and as she passed, Azriel’s eyes fixed on the plunging back of her gown. I recognized the desire in his eyes too keenly.

“Come on!” Mor chirped over her shoulder. “Let’s get our pictures taken!”

“It might be more appropriate if you had an actual Jewish person in the picture with you,” said a midnight voice behind me. A jolt of electricity shot up my mine. “Wouldn’t want the Gentiles stealing the spotlight.”

“You flatter me, cousin,” Mor sighed. “Fine. I’ll just go steal Azriel.” She floated off to do just that.

I turned to face Rhys and fought not to look him up and down like a starved person. But . . . I had missed him.

That didn’t excuse his behavior, though. “Do you plan to ignore me some more?” I asked.

“I’m here now, aren’t I? I wouldn’t want you to call me a hateful coward again.”

I started to retort, but thought better of it.

He stepped closer. “I wasn’t punishing you. I just . . . I needed time.”

It wasn’t something I wanted to get into, so I waved my hand vaguely at our surroundings. “So, this is quite a shindig.”

Rhys smiled. “It’s Purim. Did Mor explain it to you?”

I shrugged one shoulder. “A bit. I feel a little . . . like I’m intruding.”

Rhys’s lips parted, and his eyes widened a fraction. “No, Feyre. You’re never intruding.” He held out his arm to me. “Come on, let’s go inside.” He escorted me along a red carpet and politely paused when photographers asked to take our picture. I was surprised at myself for not shrinking away--for not being afraid to be seen here, with him.

It was a delicious meal, and everyone was . . . so happy. It had been a very, very long time since I’d seen such a party, and . . . it was a welcome change. Mor, Azriel, and Cassian reappeared to sit at our table with us, and Rhys was greeted warmly by others in attendance. There was no skepticism, no doubt, no name-calling. Perhaps it was the holiday, perhaps it was this particular group of people, but, for the first time since I’d moved in with him, Rhys was not viewed with doubt or disdain. And he was . . . relaxed.

When Rhys was up getting drinks, I remarked on this to Azriel. The corner of his mouth lifted and he said, “Everyone is on their best behavior for Purim--we’re here to celebrate. But in addition, many people here think Rhys embodies the spirit of Purim . . . the survival, against all odds.”

Perhaps it was the champagne, but my blood warmed at the thought. “Do they know what happened over there?”

“They don’t need to,” Azriel replied. “His survival, and his presence here, is enough.”

Rhys returned to the table before I could ask more.

After the dinner, there was a brief reprieve before the after party. Rhys rented a limousine for the occasion and Mor passed out masks for all of us. When we arrived, there were more cameras, more lights, and even better music. Mor immediately pulled both Cassian and Azriel onto the dance floor, but before I could join them, Rhys grabbed my hand. “There’s a great view of the city upstairs,” he said. “Do you want to come?”

I glanced over at my . . . my friends, dancing like there was no tomorrow. But even though the sight of it cheered me, I couldn’t think past the feeling of Rhys’s fingers around mine, asking me . . . coaxing me . . .

I nodded.

He led me upstairs and out onto the balcony. It was chilly, but enough warm air filtered in from outside that it wasn’t too miserable. It was worth it, anyway, for the sight of New York from this angle. I leaned out over the railing a bit before realizing just how far up we were.

“Don’t worry, I won’t push you over,” Rhys teased as I leaned back.

“It’d be a good punishment, for what I said to you.” I grimaced as my morbid humor fell flat.

“I said some horrible things, too.”

“I didn’t mean it,” I said, turning to look at him “I meant it more about myself than you. And I’m sorry.”

His eyes scanned the skyline for a moment before he said, “You were right, though. I stayed away because you were right. Though I’m glad to hear my absence felt like a punishment.” He glanced sideways at me and grinned.

I let out a tiny sigh of relief. “This is a really nice holiday,” I said, painfully aware of how inadequate the words sounded.

“It’s always been my favorite. I haven’t celebrated in . . . four years.” He didn’t need to say that Amarantha hadn’t let him observe it. And last year, in the midst of his trial . . . I could imagine that he hadn’t been in the mood. He leaned forward on the balcony and we just took in the night in silence for a while. Then he said, “Both years I was in Russia and Purim came around, Amarantha made sure I . . . serviced her. The entire night. She knew . . . she knew what it meant to me.”

It was as though the celebrations went quiet around us. “I’m sorry.”

“I got through it by reminding myself that my friends were safe, stateside. That I was already working against her. Nothing else mattered, so long as I had that. She could use my body however she wanted. I didn’t care.”

“So why aren’t you in there with them?” I asked.

“They don’t know--what she did to me on Purim. 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 with your own trouble?”

Our eyes were locked, our bodies close to each other on the balcony. The heat from his body chased away the cold. I wanted more of it--so I reached out and took his hand. Then, as I turned to face him fully, something silver and sparkling rained down on us from above. I yelped and jumped back, pushing the glitter from my face.

“Sorry!” someone called from the balcony above us, giggling loudly. Rhys waved in acknowledgement, but when he looked back at me he let out a laugh.

A real one--not laced with sarcasm or cynicism. He was smiling, and it was almost brighter than the glitter that was threatened to fall into my eyes. I went to push it away, but Rhys grabbed my hands. “Don’t,” he laughed. “It looks like your freckles are sparkling.”

I wrinkled my nose and made to push him, but he evaded me. Then there was a faint curse from above as another glitter bomb escaped its owner and cascaded down--

--right onto Rhys’s head.

He swore and shook his hair, sending glitter floating through the air. It looked so ridiculous that I cackled, and then I couldn’t stop. It bubbled up in me, escaping my mouth until my eyes ached along with my sides. I snatched his hand in mine, examining how the glitter stuck to his skin. And I decided I could make it better. I traced paths of glitter on his palm, forming a star there. His fingers tightened around mine, and he stared at our locked hands.

“You know, Purim started with Esther,” he said, his voice hoarse.

“Yes?” I said, wondering why he’d brought it up.

“Esther . . . the name--it means star.”

He looked up at me with such a beautiful expression on his face that I couldn’t help but smile back.

His own smile faded and his eyes widened a fraction. “Smile again,” he whispered.

I realized then that I hadn’t smiled for him. Or laughed. Not once. Not in Russia, and not since. But for him, now? For my friend . . . on whom I’d just painted something.

I’d--painted again.

So I smiled at him--real and true as his laughter.

“You’re exquisite,” he breathed, and the wonder in his voice, the power of those words, electrified me.

I had no idea what to say. “You owe me two thoughts--back from when I first came here. Tell me what you’re thinking.”

Rhys bit his lip before answering, “You want to know why I didn’t contact you those first few months? Because I was so convinced you’d spit in my face, turn me away, I just . . .” He shook his head and more glitter shook loose. “I figured hiding was a better alternative.”

“Who would have thought a millionaire could be so intimidated by a half-literate soldier?” I teased. “That’s one. Tell me another thought.”

Rhys’s brow furrowed and his eyes fell to my mouth. “I’m wishing I could take back that kiss in Russia.”

I’d almost forgotten about that kiss. It had been over a year ago, when Tamlin had snuck me into a storage closet and Rhys had followed us. He’d kissed me to keep Amarantha from knowing what I’d been doing. “Why?”

“Because I didn’t make it pleasant for you, and I was jealous and pissed off, and I knew you hated me.”

He looked up at me, and I knew my eyes held the same hungry, longing look in his. And . . . I wanted to close the distance between us, cross that final threshold, even though . . . I still wasn’t sure he wanted the same. “Do you--do you want to dance with me?” I asked softly.

Rhys’s eyes sparked and he gave a slightly disbelieving smile. “You want to dance?” he asked, as though I’d offered him a precious gift.

I nodded. “In there. With them.” Both of us--we’d both been alone for a long time, in ways both similar and different. But we didn’t have to be alone anymore.

“Of course I’ll dance with you,” Rhys said. “All night, if you wish.”

“Even if I step on your toes?”

“Even then.”

He leaned in and kissed me softly on my glitter-stained cheek. He’d done this only a couple of nights ago, and yet it felt lightyears different this time.

Bits of glitter stuck to his lips when he pulled away, and it only enhanced his soft smile. “I am . . . very glad I met you, Feyre,” he murmured.

“Come on,” I said, holding his hand tight and giving it a small tug. “Let’s go join the dance.”

Chapter Text

 

1750 20 MAR 2022. Watertown, New York, United States of America

The roadtrip upstate was . . . interesting, to say the least.

Azriel insisted on driving, as “the responsible one,” and I counted my blessings that Rhys had called shotgun to man the radio. The night before, we’d danced until midnight when the venue cleared out, and then Rhys and I had gone back to the apartment, my feet aching until I settled in my bed. But I hadn’t been able to go to sleep right away. Not when I’d felt Rhys’s phantom arms around me, still felt soaked in his scent of citrus and jasmine . . . and had his smile burned behind my eyelids after he’d bid me goodnight. I’d stayed up far too long, not even lying to myself about why. Why I hoped . . .

But I soon fell asleep anyway, and when I woke up Rhys was already sending bags down to the SUV Cassian had rented for the trip. I’d looked for a moment with him, to do what I wasn’t sure, but Mor had shown up and soon all anyone was focused on was getting out of the city sometime today.

So it was best that I was in the back with Cassian and Mor. Cassian, in fact, had the whole third-row bench to himself, which was good because he fidgeted a lot. He also decided to start the license-plate game about an hour into the trip, and Mor was turning red with the desire to throttle him the second time he burst into song at the sight of an Oklahoma license plate.

The trip wasn’t bad, though. Only five and a half hours, and the edge of the Catskill Mountains was beautiful. Nothing was in bloom yet and wouldn’t be until May at least, but the rolling hills that slowly swelled into granite mountains was breathtaking.

We got a hotel in Watertown about twenty minutes away from base. It was nothing glamorous, but I hardly cared about that. We ordered in room service and then Cassian and Azriel had a belching contest that had me kicking then out of my room around midnight. Rhys paused at the door and said quietly, “Get some rest tonight. Our meeting with Lieutenant Colonel Devlon is tomorrow morning.”

“I’m ready,” I assured him.

“I know you are, darling.” Our eyes met, and the connection didn’t break until I stepped back into the room and closed the door. Mor was already passed out on top of her blanket, and I quietly put out the lamps and crawled into bed myself. But still, when I closed my eyes, I saw Rhys’s smile as a bright light in the darkness.

-

0900 21 MAR 2022. Fort Drum, New York, United States of America

The base was quieter than I expected it to be. Then again, the last time I had been on a base was when I had returned from Russia, and I could hardly remember that day for the chaos of it. My better memories, from basic training and from my assignments before deployment, had been busier in preparation for tours of duty. As we walked from the car to where we would meet with Lieutenant Colonel in the Guthrie Ambulatory Health Care Center, I noticed Rhys watching me.

“What?” I asked, glancing sideways at him.

“You’re standing differently--walking differently,” he remarked.

I grimaced. It was true; walking onto base had made me shift back into the posture and conduct I’d adopted as a soldier. “Some things don’t change,” I admitted. “Aren’t you used to it with Cassian and Azriel?” Both were ex-military as well, and though I hadn’t yet seen them in this context, I was sure Rhys had at some point.

“Yes, but they’re my brothers,” Rhys said. “It’s different with you. A good reminder.”

“Of?”

“Of who you are. What you’ve accomplished,” he said.

“I was only a PFC,” I said.

Rhys let out an exasperated huff. “Humility doesn’t look good on you, darling.”

I wasn’t sure what to say in response to that, but I didn’t have to think hard about it. We entered the conference room, and when I saw the Lieutenant Colonel my hand snapped to my forehead in salute--Cassian and Azriel did the same. It wasn’t expected of us, since we were all civilians now, but . . . some habits didn’t die.

Once everyone was introduced, Lieutenant Colonel Devlon said, “I’ll be frank, this is a courtesy more than anything else. I have no interest in doing any business with Knight Tech, no matter what the outcome of the trial was. I doubt any of my nurses or soldiers would be interested, either. But Ms. Archeron served her country honorably, as did Captains Zelenko.” He glanced at Cassian and Azriel. “This is out of respect to them, and nothing else.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant Colonel,” I said coolly, “but will you at least sit through our demonstration? We did drive a long way to get here.”

“Very well,” the lieutenant colonel grunted, waving his hand dismissively.

“Excellent.” With that, I switched on the PowerPoint with my well-practiced demonstration, but this one had one extra feature--my own data from the day I had panicked at Tamlin’s house in Spring Valley. Rhys swiveled his head to me the moment he recognized it.

“Triggered by the sense of being enclosed, my Post-Traumatic Stress symptoms flared and began negatively impacting my health and safety and that of those around me,” I said, not looking at Rhys. “The Vitality bracelet transmitted the data concerning my heart rate, muscle tension, and oxygen intake to the corresponding app, which notified medical professionals and trusted accounts to my condition.” My stats flashed across the screen. “In this scenario, I was surrounded by people. But for many veterans and soldiers dealing with post-combat stress, they are alone or away from those who can help them when their symptoms strike. Vitality links them directly to medical professionals so they can receive aid as soon as possible. In less critical circumstances, Vitality has the capability of notifying users when they are demonstrating signs of panic and coaches them through guided breathing and mental exercises to forestall a full-blown attack.” I instructed the assembled professionals and commanders through the steps of the app. “Speaking from personal experience, I believe that Vitality bracelets will be critical for soldiers returning from combat and enable a smoother recovery to life on the homefront.”

I wrapped up my presentation a few minutes later, and the lieutenant colonel seemed reluctantly impressed. “Thank you for the presentation,” he said gruffly. “We may be in touch for further demonstrations. But for now, I have other meetings to attend, so if you’ll excuse me . . .” He stood to his feet, and everyone else did the same.

“Of course, Lieutenant Colonel,” I said. “Thank you for your time.”

The officers left the room, and Rhys muttered, “Well, he was pleasant.”

“Hush,” I said. “Save it until we’re off-base.” Cassian nodded at me appreciatively.

I could only hope that, pleasant or not, my own data had been enough to sway the lieutenant colonel and his staff.

-

1200 04 APR 2022. Wilmington, New York, United States of America

We closed the deal two weeks later, to much celebration in the hotel room afterward. Azriel had left a week earlier to take care of other things back home, but there had been no small amount of jubilation when we’d gotten the news that Fort Drum was interested in working with us. We prepared to leave the following day, but Rhys told Mor and Cassian that he and I would be driving back separately.

“Why?” I asked.

“I want to take you hiking,” he said, “as a thank-you present.”

I was too perplexed to argue. So the other two took off to head back downstate and Rhys and I rented a smaller sedan to take us further east to the high peaks of the Adirondacks. “I didn’t bring hiking boots,” I said when we’d been on the road an hour. Somehow this hadn’t occurred to me.

“I packed your walking shoes,” he said. “And don’t worry--when I said hiking, that’s putting it strongly. I just want to show you the mountains.”

“I grew up in the mountains,” I reminded him.

“I know. And you haven’t been back since Basic Training, have you?”

I frowned slightly. “No. I guess not.”

As we drove, Rhys let me control the radio, and he only stopped me from changing the song once. “Leave it!” he said, a grin breaking out on his face. “This is Mor!”

“What?” I spluttered, immediately turning the canned pop song on higher.

“Her father and manager tried to get her to do the whole recording contract thing once her show ended,” Rhys said, eyes glinting. “This was the result.”

“It’s terrible!” I squealed, breaking into peals of laughter.

“She knows it, too. Thank God she isn’t here,” Rhys snorted.

“I’m definitely going to tell her I heard this,” I said.

“Just don’t come crying to me when she throws you off the twenty-third story.”

We fell into happy silence not long after that, and we were surrounded by towering mountains by the time I said, “Lieutenant Colonel Devlon called Cassian and Azriel captains. What was their unit?”

Rhys raised an eyebrow. “You never asked them?”

“No,” I muttered. Thinking about the military at all hadn’t been something I’d wanted to do for a long time.

“I’m just surprised Cassian never brought it up himself. He and Azriel were both Night Stalkers.”

“The 160th Airborne?” I asked, my mouth dropping open slightly. The Night Stalkers flew combat helicopters in the field, and they were famous for some of their operations both in Afghanistan and later in Eastern Europe.”

Rhys nodded. “Appropriate for them, don’t you think?”

“For sure,” I agreed. I craned my neck to look at him properly. “Have you ever flown a copter?”

“Do you mean have I flown one, or have I been on board while Cassian flies one?”

“Either.”

“The former, not the latter. You couldn’t pay me to get in a flying machine with Cassian at the controls.”

I laughed in wholehearted agreement.

Not long after, we arrived in Wilmington, where Whiteface Mountain was. We stopped to stretch our legs and grab some food at a diner, and then we got back in the car to start the eight-mile climb to the summit. Once we parked, I zipped up my windbreaker and put on a hat, and we decided to walk the tunnel the rest of the way to the top.

For some reason, the crisp air was heavy between us--a topic of conversation neither of us had yet breached. So, as we walked side by side, I said, “I know how you met everyone else at this point, but . . . how did you meet Tamlin?”

Rhys glanced at me, but it was mischief and not defensiveness in his eyes. “Beat me to the top and I’ll tell you.” Then he took off jogging.

“Prick!” I yelled behind him, but I picked up my pace, too.

I wasn’t sure if he let me win or not, but I did squeak ahead of him at the very top of the incline to break out onto the summit. We--we were the only ones there.

And the view was incredible.

Far below, the U-shaped Lake Placid stood out against the bare trees, and in the distance some of the high peaks still had snow along their sides. Flocks of birds darted through the sky, calling to each other and . . .

It was like home.

Rhys stepped up beside me and placed his hand on the small of my back. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”

I nodded. “I’d forgotten how much I liked the mountains. Before.”

Rhys nodded. “The same.” He put his hands in his pockets and said, “Tamlin and I went to the same university. He was a year younger. I knew who he was when he arrived because his father was already influential--and my father already didn’t like him. But that didn’t bother us much. He was so beat down by his father and brothers, and I thought . . . I befriended him. Sought him out whenever I had free time. Maybe it was pity, but . . . I took him under my wing.”

“Did anyone know?”

“Cassian and Azriel knew, but they were already enlisted. My family knew, and disapproved.” Rhys’s jaw was tight as his eyes surveyed the view below, the wind ruffling his dark hair. “Tamlin’s father was threatened by it. By me. Though I would turn his son ‘soft,’ or convince Tamlin to step out from his influence.” Rhys stepped up to the railing of the overlook and leaned against it, hunching his shoulders. “The unrest in Eastern Europe had already started, even though the U.S. wouldn’t get involved for several more years. I was supposed to join my mother and sister in Europe for a vacation in the summer, and we had even planned to take a trip toward Australia, too. But Tamlin convinced me to take another internship. I was a semester away from graduating, and I felt like I had no choice if I wanted to have a competitive resume. So my mother and Katie had to change their plans, and they took an earlier flight to the southern hemisphere. And . . . as they were heading over Eastern Europe, the plan was shot down by combatants in Eastern Europe.”

I shook my head, swallowing over a lump in my throat. It burned even in the cold air.

“I threw myself into learning what had happened, what had caused the plane to be shot down . . . and my father told me that he suspected Tamlin’s father had been fueling the conflict with his investments. It wasn’t . . . it wasn’t a solid claim at first, not until Amren followed the breadcrumbs. But there was still nothing to be done. Tamlin’s father wasn’t a politician at that point, but he had friends in high places. And nothing he’d done was technically illegal. But . . . because of him, my mother and sister were killed. It . . . it should have been me.”

Tears pricked my eyes and stung. I felt bile in the back of my throat, and all I wanted to do was touch him, as though by touching him I could leach away his pain, take away that haunted look in his eyes.

“I confronted Tamlin about it,” Rhys murmured, “but he accused me of lying. And worse.”

“Worse?” I whispered.

Rhys sighed. “Tamlin had fallen in with some . . . well, some people who did not like the way the world was changing. Who thought their ideas, their . . . qualities . . . were inherently better.”

“Don’t try to spare my feelings,” I said, my voice hoarse. “Don’t dance around it.”

Rhys nodded stiffly. “All right, then. Racists. Anti-Semites. They weren’t hard to find, especially among the circles Tamlin’s family operated in.

“So when I confronted Tamlin about his father’s corruption, he . . . well, he called me and my family some things that I will not repeat. Nothing I hadn’t heard a million times before, of course, but coming from him . . . it was different. And it got ugly. I got ugly. Between being fed up with all of that and still grieving my family, I only cared about making him hurt as much as I was hurting. I attacked him. I was stronger than Tamlin. I would have beaten him--maybe even killed him--but someone called the police. My father was not pleased that he had to come get me that night. And I never spoke to Tamlin again, if I could help it. And I never forgave him.”

Rhys glanced up at me, saw how pale I was. “He never told you anything about that.” It wasn’t a question.

“I--I’m sorry.” It was hard to get the words out.

“What do you possible have to be sorry for?”

“I didn’t know. I didn’t know that he’d done that--” I could barely breathe. On my wrist, my bracelet beeped, flashing with the message, COMMENCE BREATHING EXERCISES . . . 1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . .

Rhys’s eyes flicked to my wrist and then to my face. “Feyre,” he said.

I looked away over the mountainside, taking off my hat to run my hand through my hair as I obeyed the breathing exercises. On command, I let out a long, cleansing exhale.

And with it, I let out the last scraps of Tamlin that had been clinging to my heart. The fluttered away on the breeze, darting through the air like leaves in late autumn. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” I asked. So long--so long I had been clinging to those pieces. No more.

“I didn’t want you to think I was trying to turn you against him.”

I looked back at Rhys and wondered at the beauty of him--his elegance against the backdrop of the mountain range, the way he seemed even more open and free here than I’d ever seen him. His broad shoulders, his sculpted jaw . . . and an image clicked into place in my mind. I stepped up to him and met his eyes before reaching out to take his hand. “I want to paint you,” I murmured.

Rhys smirked, but it was gentle--not deflective, like usual, but affectionate. “Nude would be best,” he said. And he held my hand as we walked back down the mountain together.

-

2030 04 APR 2022. Indian Lake, New York, United States of America

We took our time driving back, exploring the high peaks even though we decided not to venture up anymore. Eventually, we stopped for gas in a little town at the south end of the park. I grabbed snacks in the little store, but when I came out again, Rhys was in a state.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, clutching a bag of trail mix in my hand.

“Rental car won’t start.”

“Is it the battery?” I asked.

“Maybe,” Rhys muttered. “Can you ask inside if they’ve got a tester?”

I asked, and they didn’t. “Any rental car service nearby?” Again, nothing. “Shit,” I muttered. “A mechanic, at the very least?”

The clerk shrugged wearily. “I’ll make a call.”

The mechanic, it turned out, was the only one in town and wouldn’t be available until the following morning. Rhys used his considerable charisma and a bit of pocket change--which by Rhys’s definition was very persuasive--to convince the clerk to give us a ride to the motel near where he lived once his shift was over. It was a pretty rundown place, but we were not in the mood to be picky. The temperature had turned cold, and what we had thought would be a casual trip back home to the city had become far more trouble than it was worth. On top of it all, it had started raining.

Despite the rain, Rhys ventured out to the bar across the street to see if he could get some proper food for us. I unlocked the room and stepped inside, but the temperature was not much warmer and my blood chilled even further at the sight of the single bed. But it was the only room left--we didn’t have another option. And I was too tired to complain.

I went to go take a shower, but I realized there were no towels in the bathroom. Reluctantly, I stepped back out into the cold rain to go request some at the office.

I’d only made it partway across the parking lot when I heard my name. “Feyre.”

I whirled around and my heart leapt to my throat as I saw none other but Lucien standing there in the gravel, with Bron and Hart on either side of him. “Finally he left you alone,” Lucien said. “We’ve been waiting for this for months.”

Months. They . . . they were the ones Amren said had been tailing us in Philadelphia. And probably everywhere else. “How did you find me?” I demanded.

“We have equipment for that,” Lucien said. “It was luck we caught you here, though.”

Here, in this tiny town, with no working car and few resources . . . I took a step back, and Lucien frowned. “We need to get out of here. Tamlin’s been--he hasn’t been himself. I’ll take you right to--”

“No,” I said--soft, quiet, and deadly.

“Feyre,” Lucien said. “Let’s go home.”

My lips curled. “That stopped being my home the day you let him lock me up inside of it.”

Lucien grimaced. “It was a mistake. We all made mistakes. He’s sorry--more sorry than you realize. So am I.” He took another step toward me, and I paced backward again, surreptitiously scanning my surroundings for anyone who might help--or anything I might use against them.

My body--I could use my body. I remembered Cassian’s months of training. I wasn’t helpless anymore. I wasn’t sure I could fight off all three of them, but I could do some damage, raise enough of a ruckus that someone might come to help . . . I just couldn’t let them take me. They’d take me and stuff me into a car and have me back to Spring Valley before Rhys could even get the car fixed in the morning. “Feyre,” Lucien said again.

“Don’t. Touch. Me.”

“You don’t understand the mess we’re in, Feyre. We--I need you home. Now.”

I glanced over my shoulder toward the office, and that was a mistake. Lucien leapt toward me, but the moment his hand wrapped around my wrist, I elbowed him in the face and used his thrown balance to sweep his knees out from under him with my leg. He collapsed onto the ground with a groan. I started running and the other two lunged for me. I sidestepped them and stayed a pace or two ahead, but when I turned the corner to my room a skidded to a stop, spraying gravel. I turned to face Bron and Hart, and they stopped, too. And stared.

At me, ready to fight, and Rhys, standing at my side with the promise of murder in his face. He might not have been a soldier, but he’d been training with them for months, years now. Together, he and I would be able to take Lucien and his backup. But ideally, we wouldn’t have to.

Lucien had gotten to his feet and approached us, his good eye wide and his teeth bared in a snarl.

“Little Lucien,” Rhys purred. “Didn’t your mother ever tell you than when a woman says no, she means it?”

“Bastard,” Lucien snarled, shoving Bron aside. “You filthy, whoring bastard.”

“Shut the fuck up,” I spat.

Lucien’s nostrils flared. “What have you done, Feyre?”

“Don’t come looking for me again,” I said.

“He’ll never stop looking for you; never stop waiting for you to come home.” Lucien was almost twitching in his earnestness, but despite the way the word resonated in my bones, I did not waver. “What did he do to you? Did he use one of those devices and make you--”

“Enough,” Rhys said, the picture of calmness compared to Lucien’s frenzy. “Feyre and I are busy. Go back to D.C. and tell Springer that I’m a little tired of him sticking his nose into my business.”

I fought down the shiver from the cold rain as Lucien said, “You made your point, Feyre--now come home.”

“I’m not a child playing games,” I growled.

“Careful, Lucien,” Rhys said, a flicker of a smile at the corner of his mouth, “or Feyre will add another bruise to your face.” Indeed, the skin where I’d elbowed him was already beginning to darken.

“We are not your enemies, Feyre!” Lucien insisted. “Things got bad, Ianthe got out of hand, but it doesn’t mean you give up--”

“You gave up,” I told him. Beside me, Rhys froze in anticipation. “You gave up on me! You were my friend. And you picked him--picked obeying him, obeying Springer, even after you were discharged and you were under no obligation to do so anymore. You saw what they were doing to me, but you still choose him, even when I was wasting away day by day.”

“You have no idea how volatile those first few months were,” Lucien snapped. “We were America’s Heroes. We had to present a strong face to the public, to the nation. We were the examples.”

“Why?” I demanded. “Why did that fall on our shoulders? So that Springer could convince the public that this war he helped start was noble after all? So that everyone and their mother could pretend we were fine, so they could be fine, too? It was all bullshit, Lucien.” I swallowed down the anger in my voice. “I begged you,” I added. “I begged you so many times to help me, to get me out of the house, even for an hour. And you left me alone, or shoved me toward Ianthe, or told me to stick it out.”

Lucien’s frenzy had quieted, but the emotion in his eye still burned. “And I suppose New York is so much better?”

I sneered at him, “I wasn’t getting any sleep anyway. So the City That Never Sleeps seemed like the perfect fit.”

“What are you going on about, Feyre?”

“I am not the same innocent private who got captured in Russia,” I told him. “I have no interest in being Springer’s puppet and a blushing politician’s wife.”

“Feyre--”

“Tell Tamlin,” I said, “if he sends anyone else after me, I will put out a restraining order. And I’ll follow through on Rhys’s promise to give you more bruises.”

Lucien stared at me in silence for a long moment, but I had made myself clear--I wasn’t going with him. And there was no way he’d be able to take me without causing a scene, getting himself or others hurt. But before he turned to go back to the car he’d parked in the shadows, he stared down Rhys. “You’re over. You and your whole damned company.” Then he slid into the car, slammed the doors, and took off down the darkened mountain road.

Rhys ran a hand over my shoulders and I looked up at him. “That was well done.”

“It was all the truth,” I said quietly, casting my gaze to the scuffed gravel.

“Are you all right?” he asked, wrapping his arm around my back to warm me and guide me back to our room.

“The fact that it was so easy, that I felt so little, upsets me more than the encounter itself.”

“I knew things were bad,” Rhys said, and I heard the fury beneath his words,”but I thought Lucien, at least, would have stepped in.”

“I thought so, too,” I whispered. We stopped in front of the door and he took the key from me.

“That was a beautiful strike, by the way. Cassian would be proud.” Then he bent down and kissed my forehead.

It was a moment before I could compose myself enough to follow him across the threshold.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

“Bad news,” Rhys said when I shut the door behind me. He gestured to the bathroom. “No hot water.”

I whimpered and collapsed into the rolling chair by the desk. The supports wobbled beneath me and I braced my feet on the floor for balance. “I guess we’ll have to warm each other,” I said. I cleared my throat. “Body heat,” I clarified.

Rhys’s smirk was insufferable. “I’ll try to keep my hands to myself.” My stomach growled audibly and he said, “I did manage to get food, but it’s probably a bit cold by now. I’ll try to heat it up while you change.” He eyed the dinky microwave skeptically. He shrugged off his wet coat and hung it from one of the knobs on the dresser. When it slipped off into an inky pile on the floor, he just grunted and ignored it. He ran his hand through his damp hair and inspected the pathetic room.

My eyes were fixed on him as, for a split moment, the jaundiced light from the seventies-era wall fixture cast shadows over the planes of his face and caressed the contours of his body. It was . . . beautiful. I hadn’t expected to find anything about this place beautiful.

“I love it when you look at me like that.”

I blushed, embarrassed to have been caught staring. “Like what?”

“Like you aren’t afraid of me. Like you see me.”

“You creeped me out at first.”

Rhys let out a midnight laugh. “You’re weren’t creeped out. Perhaps nervous. But you were never once afraid of me. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t stay away.”

I opened my mouth to answer, but I was distracted by the pile of clothes he tossed into my arms. I gathered them up and walked into the tiny, grungy bathroom to change.

I remembered that day I’d met him. I’d been living with Tamlin and his father for a few months, and though Tamlin and I had flirted plenty, we hadn’t committed to each other yet. He’d thrown a New Year’s Eve party for his fraternity and told me to stay in my room, because he “didn’t think I would like his friends.” But when the party had gotten going, I just couldn’t stay away. I’d gone downstairs, looking for Tamlin, but hadn’t been able to find him anywhere. I’d bumped instead into several pale, dark-haired guys I’d never met before, and all of them were drunk. They’d started herding me away from everyone else, even though I’d warned them I was looking for Tamlin. This had only entertained them further.

I’d tripped backward over a case of beer, but before I could hit the ground, strong hands had braced my shoulders and helped me back onto my feet.

“There you are,” Rhysand had said. “I’ve been looking for you.” He’d thanked the others for finding me for him, and then, in his usual cool and intimidating way, had convinced them to leave. I remembered thinking that he was the most beautiful man I had ever seen.

That was still true.

He’d asked what I was doing at the party and I’d made up some useless excuses. He’d offered to escort me somewhere, but at that time I’d had no idea who he was, and his dark elegance had been intimidating. But he had saved me nonetheless.

I remembered he had remarked on the painting I had done for Tamlin, which he had hung on the wall in the corridor. I’d told him it was mine, but before he’d had the chance to tell me how mediocre it was, I’d slipped away to go find Lucien.

It had been unpleasant to find out how bitter his rivalry with Tamlin was when he’d later crashed one of Tamlin’s father’s parties. After that, the next time I saw him was almost two years later, in Russia.

So much. So much had happened since.

It was miserable trying to change in the bathroom. Between getting my wet clothes off my cold skin and standing on them so my bare feet didn’t touch the grimy tile floor, I was relieved by the time I’d finally pulled on the oversized sweater Rhys had tossed me, a pair of leggings, and hand-knit socks. When I left the bathroom, Rhys was tearing off the lid of a to-go box. I sat on the bed--which was not small, but also not large enough to ignore the fact that I’d be sleeping next to Rhys--as he offered me a plate of slightly overdone chicken fingers and limp fries. He gave me an apologetic shrug but I dug in anyway. I noticed he was still in his wet clothes and said, “You should change before you catch cold.”

He smirked and gestured at the microwave, which was struggling to heat his own food.

“I don’t recommend the bathroom anyway,” I sighed.

Rhys grinned and stepped just out of my line of sight to peel off his wet shirt and pants. I struggled to swallow a fry as I tried not to think about his tattooed chest, his muscled thighs . . .

Soon enough, he was in dry clothes. He fetched his food from the microwave and sat cross-legged on the bed opposite me. We ate in silence for a while, and after I set aside my empty tray I said, “Did you think I would go with him?”

Rhys chewed quietly for a minute before saying, “I heard every word between you. I knew you could take care of yourself, and yet . . . I found myself deciding that if you took his hand, got in the car, I would find a way to live with it. It would be your choice.”

I sipped from the bottled water he’d purchased. “And if he had grabbed me?”

Rhys’s jaw was set, and his eyes were fixed on my throat as he said without a trace of doubt, “Then I would have torn apart the world to get you back.”

Rhys finished his food, and as he stood to throw out both of our trays, the bed groaned. I curled my fingers into my palm and the sound brought other thoughts to my mind. “One thought in exchange for another,” I said.

Rhys rasped out a laugh and leaned against the bureau upon which the microwave was set. He watched me take a swig from my water and said, “I’m thinking,” he said, he voice low and mesmerizing, “that I look at you and feel like I’m dying. Like I can’t breathe. I’m thinking that I want you so badly I can’t concentrate half the time I’m around you, and this room is too small and vile for me to properly bed you.”

My stomach was led in my core. My fingers struggled to screw the top back on my bottled water and set it aside. But I looked right at him as I said, “I’m thinking that I can’t stop thinking about you. And that it’s been that way for a long while. Even before I left Spring Valley. And maybe that makes me a traitorous, lying piece of trash, but--”

“It doesn’t,” Rhys said softly, no trace of teasing in his face.

The silence was heavy between us. “We should really sleep.”

Rhys nodded and stepped into the bathroom to wash his hands--and maybe splash water on his face. I slung the thin, scratchy blanket over my body and curled my knees to my chest--I was still so cold.

I tried to ignore the shifting and groaning of the bed when Rhys climbed in behind me. The hideous light fixture clicked off. I crossed my arms over my body, curled my legs up, but I couldn’t banish the cold.

“You’re shivering so hard the bed is shaking,” Rhys murmured. The hair on the back of my neck rose in response.

“My hair is wet,” I muttered.

He laughed under his breath and shifted closer, wrapping his arms around me and coaxing my arms and legs into a more relaxed position, tangling his feet with mine. “No expectations,” he said softly. “Just body heat.” His left arm hooked beneath me to wrap around my chest as his other hand spread over my abdomen, tucking me close against him. He was--there was so much of him. For all that we were touching, somehow it still did not feel like enough.

My right hand was resting against my hip, but, traitor as it was, it slipped backward between our bodies, accidentally coming in contact with Rhys’s bare waist, exposed by his shirt that had been hiked up. His embrace tightened, and he said through gritted teeth, “Your finger . . . is very cold.”

The warmth of his breath on my neck was intoxicating, and I tipped my head sideways to feel it more--even as my finger made another sweep just above his pelvis.

“You cruel, wicked thing,” he sighed, and his nose grazed the skin he’d warmed with his breath. “Didn’t anyone ever teach you manners?”

“I was a soldier. We don’t have much use for manners,” I said. I fully intended to bring my hand back where it belonged, but it grazed his skin again and--

I felt him go hard against my backside. I began to lose control of my limbs as I melted in his arms, and he laughed against my neck as his right hand started to make slow, taunting circles against my stomach. I pushed back closer to him, tilting my neck in hopes that the neckline of my sweater might slip down, that he might take the invitation . . .

I didn’t know why I was doing this. But I . . . what he’d said to me, what I’d said to him . . . there was no use denying any of this.

“Greedy,” he teased. “First you terrorize me with your cold hands, now you want . . . what is it you want, Feyre?” His hand worked in circles further down my body, and his teeth nipped at my earlobe as they had in that nightclub, and I . . .

You, I wanted to say. I want you. But--but if I told him that, perhaps it would be too much, too soon after Amarantha, after everything. And perhaps he didn’t want me in the same way I wanted him. So I kept it simple. “I want a distraction,” I ground out. “I want--fun.”

His hands stilled as though in surprise. But he said, “Then allow me the pleasure of distracting you.” His hands resumed their exploration of my body.

His hand did find the neckline of my sweater enticing, and it dove down within to caress the sensitive skin there with his knuckle. Then his finger. Then his whole hand. “I love these,” he said, his voice hoarse. “You have no idea how much I love these.”

My throat was tight as I was lost in the sea of his caresses--on my breast, on the skin of my stomach, on my neck. And behind me, the length of him . . . I wanted to feel it. I ground against him and he hissed against my neck. “Stop that. You’ll ruin my fun.”

I started to twist around in his arms, not satisfied just to imagine him, but he held me tight and kept me from turning.

“I want to touch you first,” he growled, lower and deeper than I’d ever heard him speak. “Just--let me touch you.” I let out a small gasp as he palmed my breast. And I was drifting away in the feeling of him, the words he had spoken--I can’t breathe when I look at you. Let me touch you. Because I was jealous, and pissed off . . .

There’s the Feyre I adore.

Rhys’s finger was trailing lines along the band of my leggings, and my toes curled against his muscled calves. Back and forth he went, teasing me, until I begged, “Please.”

I felt his smile against my neck. “There are those missing manners.”

I groaned loud enough to mask the creak of the bed as he slipped his finger down my center and I arched against him, silently begging him to touch me more. With every brush against my sensitive folds, I arched further, feeling his hardness against me and goddamn it I was in so much trouble.

“Like that?” Rhys asked, repeating the motion.

Please.”

I grit my teeth together as he at last slid his finger inside me. “Fuck,” I heard him swear. “Feyre--”

I was already rocking against him, trying with only my hips to get him deeper, have him further inside of me. All the cold had left me, and all that remained was the burning of my blood as it charged through me, the heat emanating from between my legs where Rhys and I made contact. He added a finger and I bit back a curse as I ground down harder.

It wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough just to feel him. I needed to see him, see those violet eyes, that strong jaw. So I twisted in his arms, still encouraging his fingers within me, and as I beheld the lust in his dark eyes I was so overcome that I captured his mouth with my own, wanting to connect us in every way.

He welcomed me, and he led the rhythm of our kiss to the tempo of his fingers inside me. When he pulled back to breathe, he locked eyes with me and said, “You have no idea how much I--Feyre.” He groaned.

The way he said my name poured over me like rays of hot sun, trailing over my arms and shoulders and body until it met with the heat in my core. I combusted and cried out, but Rhys swallowed the sound with his mouth on mine. He swore again breathlessly as my climax ended, and by the time the fire in my blood had faded I was limp in his arms. I whimpered as he drew out his fingers.

His voice was rough and erotic as he stared me down. “I wanted to do that when I felt how drenched you were at The Court of Nightmares. I wanted to have you right there in the middle of everyone. But mostly just wanted to do this.” He did not look away as he lifted his skilled fingers to his mouth and sucked on them. This close, I could smell my own heady scent, and Rhys’s eyes fluttered shut as though he’d just tasted the most exquisite wine in the world.

I shifted in his arms to try and get on top of him, to pin him down so I could get more of him, but he held me tight once more. “When you take me,” he said, “I want to be alone--far away from everyone.” He pressed nipping kisses to my jaw, up my neck and along my ear. “I want to be able to moan your name and know that you’re the only one who can hear it.’’

I trembled in his arms. I opened my mouth to say something, anything, but could form no words.

“And when I take you,” he continued, “I want you spread out on a table like my own personal feast.”

The only sound to escape me as his arms tucked me in close to him was a whimper.

“I’ve had a long, long time to think about how and where I want you,” Rhys said onto the skin of my neck. “I have no intention of doing it all in one night. Or in a room where we might get STDs from breathing.”

A shocked laugh rasped out of me.

“Besides,” he added, his fingers sliding into the band of my leggings again, but pausing their journey for the night, “I don’t think these walls would hold up to the way I want to fuck you against them.”

A broken groan escaped my lips. “I need--I need a moment,” I whispered.

Rhys kissed the skin beneath my ear. “Don’t be gone too long.” But he released me, and I darted off to the bathroom. When I’d calmed down, I returned to the bed and climbed back under the blankets to find Rhys’s arms open and waiting for me. And somehow, despite what we’d just done, I found comfort there. I slept soundly, tucked into his chest, and didn’t have a single nightmare.

-

1400 05 APR 2022. New York City, New York, United States of America.

We located a mechanic and had the rental car fixed up early the next morning, and soon we were back on the road to New York. We mostly sat in silence, listening to faint gospel music playing in the background as the Adirondacks shifted into the Catskills and we made our way downstate. I didn’t have much to say. How could I look at him and tell him that waking up in his arms that morning that been the closest to heaven I’d ever been? There were no words for such a thing--not that I could successfully say out loud.

He, too, seemed to have something on his mind that he couldn’t put into words, because I caught him several times opening his mouth and then closing it again like he kept changing his mind. It wasn’t until we were pulling up to the apartment in the city that I got the nerve to look at him and say, “What is it?”

He didn’t return my gaze--just stared at the dashboard. “There’s something I need to tell you.”

I waited, but he didn’t continue. He was so . . . nervous. I’d never seen him like this. I reached out and laced my fingers through his--the first intimate touch we’d had all day. “I don’t walk away. Not from you.”

His face softened and he finally lifted his head to look up at me. “Feyre--”

But his violet eyes turned stony as he looked over my shoulder and swore.

“What--?”

Rhys was already getting out of the car, and I scrambled out behind him. “What is the meaning of this?” he demanded, approaching the cluster of law enforcement agents waiting outside the front door of the apartment.

“Rhysand Knight?” one of them asked.

“Yes,” he confirmed.

“You’re under arrest for the federal crimes of espionage and extortion.”

“What?” Rhys spat.

The officers approached him with handcuffs and I leapt to his side. “Leave him alone!” I cried.

“Feyre,” Rhys said quietly, giving me a meaningful look. Don’t get involved.

“This is ridiculous!” I argued. “He’s done no such thing! You have no evidence!”

A tall, sleek woman in a tailored suit looked over the rim of her glasses at me. “We have evidence that he is associated with an attempt to hack files belonging to the former U.S. Secretary of Defense. We are professionals, Ms. Archeron. Do not interfere here.”

“It’s all right, Feyre,” Rhys said, though his face was a mask of cold fury. “It’ll be fine.”

The officer handcuffing him started reading him his rights, and before I could say anything else, they’d stuffed him into the back of a police cruiser and sped off, leaving me alone and frightened in front of the towering apartment building.

Chapter Text

 

 

1430 05 APR 2022. New York City, New York, United States of America.

My hands were shaking as I scrambled to call Mor. “Mor!” I cried. “Rhys has been arrested.”

“I know,” she said, her voice low and wrathful. “They came to the apartment looking for him. I couldn’t stop them.”

“What do we do?” I asked, my voice breaking in my panic.

“Call Amren. She’ll have an idea. I’m going down to the police station to see what I can do.” She hung up and I frantically called Amren. She told me she’d come to find me, and I went up to the apartment to wait for her. I paced back and forth, unable to think straight. Rhys. They had Rhys.

What if they put him in prison? He’d told me once that being in prison would be a thousand times worse than anything he’d faced in Russia--the idea of being shut away from the world forever. I had to . . . I had to do something.

Amren appeared and asked me to explain the situation again. She scanned the room with her intense eyes, scowling. “Orb must have figured out what they were doing and turned him over to Springer. Either Verity squealed, or it was just bad luck. Either way, Springer is trying to make it look like Rhys was trying to steal his files on Russia, the intel that he was trying to cover up.”

“But it wasn’t stealing,” I protested. “Those files belonged to Rhys from the beginning. He risked his life in Russia to collect that data.”

“Exactly,” Amren said. “The only way to get Rhys out of this mess is to get our hands on the original files. The first copies of the data he collected in Russia.”

“I thought he sent them all to Springer and Jurian,” I said.

Amren scoffed. “This is Rhys we’re talking about. He would keep the originals just in case something like this happened.”

“Why didn’t he reveal those files in the first place?” I demanded.

“He wanted to prove that Springer was suppressing them, so he wanted to get Springer’s copies out in the open. But that backfired. So the only option now is Rhys’s own files. The problem is that they’re likely sealed up tight. He might be the only one who can get in.”

“Get in where?” I asked, running my hand through my hair.

Amren looked at me grimly. “SURIEL.”

I blinked. “What?”

Amren sighed. “Follow me.” She led me into Rhysand’s bedroom, still pristine as it had been when we’d left for Fort Drum. She opened his walk-in closet and pushed aside his abundance of dark clothes. She pressed at a seam in the wall, and a panel just . . . slid away. Behind it was a tower of blinking lights and buttons and cords that I couldn’t begin to make sense of. “Grab his tablet,” Amren instructed. I pulled it out of the bag I’d brought upstairs and hesitantly approached the tower in the closet. “This is SURIEL--a Self-Updating Remote Intelligence Electronic Log. It contains every piece of data Rhys has ever collected, not just about Russia but about the flight that killed his family, the earliest records of his company, everything. It runs on its own network and can only be accessed by him, through his fingerprints.”

Amren pulled a USB cord from the tower and plugged it into the tablet in my hands. Sure enough, a blue screen requesting a fingerprint on the home key lit up the device. “You’re with the CIA,” I said. “Can’t you just fake his fingerprint?”

Amren rolled her eyes. “Yes, but it’ll take me a moment to prepare one. And there are probably additional security measures. Rhys wouldn’t leave it at that.” She walked off, muttering to herself about the possibilities, leaving me to sit on the floor of the closet with the tablet between my hands. I ran my thumb absently over the edge of it, and, out of some fanciful imagining that putting my finger where his should be would comfort me, I placed my thumb over the home key.

The screen flashed vivid green. I sucked in a startled breath and started to call for Amren, but the message on the screen stopped me.

PASSCODE: TO (3) (5) WHO (6) AND (3) DREAMS (4) ARE (8)

I stared at the screen in puzzlement. There was something . . . familiar about it. Where the numbers supposed to be words? And if so . . . ?

My blood ran cold as the password presented itself in my mind like a beacon in the night. With shaking fingers, I carefully inputted, To the stars who listen and the dreams that are answered. A phrase only he and I would know.

The green light on the screen faded away to reveal an electronic catalogue so densely arranged and sorted I wasn’t even sure what I was looking at. I was about to call for Amren again, but without me pulling it up, a window popped open and soft audio started playing.

Greetings, Feyre Archeron. I am SURIEL. I have a pre-programmed message for you from Rhysand Knight. No material will be available to you until this message has been viewed. Please press OK to continue.”

Glancing up to see if Amren was returning, I pressed OK and pulled my knees to my chest as a video began playing.

The video was dark, as though it had been recorded late at night. A silhouette crossed the screen and a dim light came on, illuminating Rhys’s face. He seemed vulnerable, emotional, as he ran his hand through his hair and began to speak. “Feyre, darling, if you’re reading this, you’ve accessed SURIEL. And if you’ve accessed SURIEL, something has gone very wrong. And if something has gone very wrong, it’s very likely I’ve been too cowardly to say what I’ve needed to say to you for months--maybe years. And even if the information you’re looking for in SURIEL is critical, I can’t let you go another moment without knowing. But even now, even preparing this, I can’t say it out loud. So I’ll show you, and I’ll pray that you don’t hate me by the end.” He swallowed and the image changed.

A date flashed across the screen. March 3rd, 2018. A younger Rhysand entered the picture, one who did not seem as world-weary as the one I knew. “I can’t get enough of these paintings,” he said, and I knew this Rhys wasn’t talking to me. This was . . . it was a diary. A video diary.  “I’m not even sure why. They’re not technically proficient but . . . they speak to me. I have the store in my bookmarks so I can buy them the moment she puts them up.” He picked up the camera and moved it around the room. I recognized one of the bedrooms from his house in Virginia. And there, spread out across the bed, were . . . my paintings.

The world stopped. Out of desperation once I had tried selling my work online, but since I didn’t have regular access to the internet, it wasn’t a particularly successful endeavor. But I had one customer. One customer who had bought a copy of everything I had produced. The customer had been anonymous and I’d been too grateful to ask for any information about them. But not long afterward, I’d had to close my webstore and go back to supporting my family in a more tangible way.

I’d tuned out of the video in the midst of my realization, and it switched to another day. January 1st, 2019. “I met her tonight,” he said. “The artist.” I swallowed over the stone that had formed in my throat. “It’s so stupid of me to even be thinking like this right now, with everything in Ukraine and the company and the war . . . but by all that is holy . . . she was the most beautiful creature I’ve ever laid my eyes on.”

Tears were pricking my eyes as I listened.

“Of course it would be at one of Springer’s disgusting parties,” Rhys continued. “I don’t even know who she was there with. She might have been alone, though I thought I saw her approach Lucien Fallbrook later. But I recognized the style of the painting on the wall nearby. I remarked on it, and she . . . she said it was hers. This woman whose art I had coveted and missed. She . . . she didn’t know who I was. But she didn’t--when she looked at me . . .” Rhys shook his head and laughed at himself. “This is nonsense. I don’t have time for this. I need sleep, maybe a drink. I’ll probably delete this in the morning.”

The screen went black. Then, the next date. January 20th, 2019. “That’s what I fucking get for turning starry-eyed,” Rhys growled at the camera. “She’s with goddamned Tamlin Springer. She was there--that girl, the painter, was there, at one of his father’s insufferable fundraisers. She was still so beautiful . . . but she clung to Tamlin like he was the anchor to her world.” He shook his head. “Just proves I need to focus on what’s important. If Tamlin has any sense he’ll keep her away from his father and those other leeches . . . and keep her far away from Russia.” His face softened, and for the first time he looked woeful, like he had seen hope and then had it snatched away. “She’s too good for him. I hope she’ll keep painting.”

The camera switched off again. This time, the date was much later . . . almost two years later. December 1st, 2020. This time, it was the Rhys I knew, or had known. There were dark circles under his eyes, and he was paler. And he struggled to speak as he said, “My world is falling apart around me and all I can think about is Feyre Archeron.”

Tears streamed down my face.

“It’s only been two weeks since I last saw her, and I feel like a starving man. I can’t stop worrying for her, wondering if she’s healing all right, praying to God she’s not as broken as I am. I want to contact her, ask if she’s all right, but I’m under constant watch. And Springer would never allow it. But I . . .” His voice caught and he cleared his throat. “My world is empty without her in it. And now I’m facing months, years, maybe even decades without ever seeing her or hearing her voice again, and it’s . . . it’s unbearable.” He placed his forehead in his palm and groaned. “I’m a mess. She probably wouldn’t want anything to do with me anyway. It’s probably for the best.”

A mess. What I’d called him on our way back from Philadelphia.

I felt sick.

Next: July 5th, 2021.

Rhys was fuming. “I am a goddamned idiot. I told myself to stay away. She was happy. She had a TV show. She was getting ready to marry him, for God’s sake. But I had to punish myself, even in the wake of the best day of my life. What do I do on the first day I’m cleared of charges? Crash a goddamned wedding. Katie was right. I’m too dramatic for my own good.

“But Feyre . . . seeing her again, even in that state . . . it was like the missing piece had fallen back into place. And I know she hates me, know she’ll resent me for taking her from her wedding, but she . . . she wasn’t all right. Isn’t all right. She needed to get away from it all. I saw it so clearly. And if she chooses to leave and go back after all, that’s her choice. I won’t stop her. But I had to try to help her. It was the least I could do, after everything she did for me.”

The next clip was short, but not sweet.

September 5th, 2021. “I think I might actually kill him this time.” Rhys’s voice was low and deadly. “For what he’s done to her.” The camera shifted, and my stomach lurched as I saw myself sprawled on Rhys’s couch in Virginia, fast asleep. I looked skeletal, like my skin was going to fall off my bones at any minute. “Time and again, I think he’s gone too far, but I always talk myself down. I don’t want a repeat of ‘14. But this . . . I’ll never forgive him for this.”

The screen faded to black once more, but it was replaced with the original video of Rhys, the one that had started the montage. His shoulders shook, and actual tears were rolling down his face. “Since you’re watching this, I can only assume that I never told you any of this. And I don’t expect you to forgive me. But, Feyre Archeron, I want you to know. I love you. I’ve known I love you since I held your face in my hands to keep your spine from splintering. And I’ve loved you every moment since.

“I don’t want to force anything on you. I don’t want to seduce you. And I don’t want you to think that everything I’ve done was to win you for my own sake. But I couldn’t . . . I couldn’t stop being around you, and loving you, and wanting you. And whether you’re watching this because I’m dead, or in prison, or something else, I want you to know that I will love you forever--for eternity. And that will never change.”

The screen switched off, and my own tears fell onto the surface of the tablet. But it blinked on again, this time offering me full access to very file in his entire system---including the ones that would clear his name.

Numb, I rose from the floor in the closet and found Amren in the kitchen. She didn’t ask about how I’d accessed the data or why my face was stained with tears. She just took the tablet from my hands and led me downstairs to drive me to the police station.

-

1830 05 APR 2022. New York City, New York, United States of America.

Amren handled the authorities. I was allowed to the visitor’s area and sat at the booth. I thought I was going to fall into incoherent pieces when they led Rhys over and he sat on the other side of the thick glass. He picked up the phone and look into my eyes, and I could make no sense of the emotions swirling in my body.

“Feyre,” he said.

And I broke.

“You don’t get to ask questions,” I rasped. “You only get to answer them. And nothing more.”

Rhys’s mouth tightened, but he nodded, bracing himself.

“How long were you going to wait to tell me?” I asked my voice hoarse. “How long were you going to keep it from me?” He’d promised--he’d promised to be honest with me, not to lie, and this . . . it felt like he’d been lying to me this whole time.

“Feyre,” he repeated. “You . . . you found SURIEL?”

“I said you don’t get to ask questions. When were you going to tell me?

“I don’t know. I wanted to yesterday. Or whenever you realized there was something more between us. I hoped you might realize it when I took you to bed, and--”

“Do the others know?”

“Amren and Mor do. Cassian and Azriel suspect.”

Hot tears burned my eyes. I hadn’t planned on berating him when I came in here, but now the anger and betrayal in my heart was ripping out of me, lashing out like a cornered animal. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“You were in love with him; you were going to marry him. And then you . . . you were enduring everything and it didn’t feel right to tell you.”

“I deserved to know.” All this time, these weeks of fighting my own feelings for him, thinking that he didn’t feel the same and that by falling for him I was a traitor . . . and the whole time he’d been in love with me. Lying to me.

“The other night you told me you wanted a distraction. You wanted fun. Not a relationship. And not to someone like me--a mess.” Rhys’s face was crumpled, his breathing erratic, and I remembered the video entry from after Russia.

“You promised--you promised no secrets, no games. You promised.”

“I know I did,” Rhys said, the energy returning to his voice. “You think I didn’t want to tell you? You think I liked hearing you wanted me only for amusement and release? You think it didn’t drive me out of my mind so completely, wondering if I should just tell you, or wait--or maybe take whatever pieces that you offered me and be happy with it? Or that maybe I should let you go so you don’t have a lifetime of enemies hunting you down and trying to hurt you for being with me?”

I shook my head. “I don’t want to hear this. I don’t want to hear you explain how you assumed that you knew best, that I couldn’t handle it--”

“I didn’t do that--”

“I don’t want to hear you tell me that you decided I was to be kept in the dark while your friends knew . . . while you . . .” My voice fractured and I couldn’t go on. “I brought the files from SURIEL here. Get yourself out of this mess. I’m leaving the city. Don’t try and find me when you get out.” I stood and hung up the phone, and he shot to his feet on the other side. I couldn’t hear him as he leaned toward the glass, calling my name, begging me to come back. I didn’t turn back as I left the visiting room and found Mor in the lobby.

She stood and embraced me when she saw the tear stains on my face. “I want you to take me somewhere far away,” I said. “Right now.”

Mor glanced toward the visiting room, and then back to me. At last, she nodded, and she took my head. And she helped me escape the heartache.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

1300 06 APR 2022. McLean,Virginia, United States of America

“This isn’t what I had in mind,” I said to Mor as we pulled up to Rhys’s house in McLean.

“He won’t come looking for you,” Mor assured me. “I won’t tell him where you are and if he guesses, I’ll tell him to stay away.” Her warm brown eyes looked me up and down. “He wanted to tell you. And it killed him not to. But . . . I’ve ever seen him so happy as he is when he’s with you.”

“I don’t care.” My voice was small.

Mor dropped my bag in the living room. “I’ll check back in three days. I called to have groceries delivered before we got here, so it’s all stocked. Take care of yourself.”

I nodded that I would, and then Mor left me alone in peace. Broken peace though it might be.

I took my bag up to the room I’d stayed in when I’d visited last summer--an open room with a four-poster bed and newly-painted walls. Two large windows let in the sun, and the attached bathroom had in-ground tub surrounded by windows looking over the private yard. It was so enclosed by trees that I had no fear of anyone looking in and seeing me naked. I ran a hot bath for myself and tried to avoid facing down my raging feelings. I quickly became too unsettled to even be comfortable in the bath, so I climbed out and wrapped myself in a thick sweater, sweatpants, and socks. I descended down a level to the massive kitchen full of stainless-steel appliances.

My stomach growled--I hadn’t eaten properly since . . . since we’d arrived back in New York the morning before. I’d been too preoccupied to eat after Rhysand had been arrested, and I’d only managed to keep down a granola bar this morning before we’d left to come here. I’d been too upset by the thought of him in pain, in prison, and then upset by him, what he’d kept from me . . .

He’d loved me since Russia. Maybe even before. He’d loved me even while I’d loved Tamlin, and he’d never said a word to be about it then. If I hadn’t nearly splintered into pieces last summer, I wondered if he ever would have. If, out of respect for what I wanted, he would have left me alone and let that love torment him forever.

I almost choked on the cereal I was eating. This was Rhys. Of course he would have tormented himself. If only to give me the choice.

It didn’t excuse him not telling me. I’d spent months thinking of myself as a traitorous piece of trash because I’d known my feelings for Rhys. And I wondered if he had told me sooner, if I wouldn’t have felt that way? If I could have healed faster.

Perhaps not. There was no real way of knowing. But alone in the house, I wondered.

I meandered out to the cathedral-ceilinged living room. It had started to rain, and I sat on the piano bench and watched it descended in silver sheets from the sky. I idly plinked away at the keys, but the sound echoing through the empty house prodded my sore and aching heart. I closed the lid and walked away.

-

0845 07 APR 2022. McLean, Virginia, United States of America

The next morning, after toasting and eating a bagel, I began to explore the house. I hadn’t done that much when I’d been here the summer before, since I’d been too depressed and low on energy to care. But now I marveled at the numerous rooms, the care with which each one was decorated. Though they were nicely appointed, none of them were lived in--none except one.

It was easy to tell which was Rhys’s room, not just for the dark gray wall paint and the violet curtains, but the ebony desk and matching dresser--and the telescope, which I was not at all surprised to find. But it wasn’t until I’d stepped all the way into the room and turned around that my stomach dropped to my feet.

My paintings.

Half a dozen of them, critically arranged on the wall within sight of his bed, as though he went to sleep at night staring at them. The paintings he’d bought from my short-lived webstore. I flashed back to his video diary, when he’d talk about how much he appreciated them . . .

It healed part of my soul to know my art had touched someone, as mediocre as it was.

I couldn’t look for long--couldn’t dwell on all the implications of it. But for the first time in ages, I felt an itch beneath my fingertips. An itch to create.

I was eerily satisfied when my snooping around the house had found a cabinet full of art supplies in the library. It had barely been used at all. There were plenty of canvases, plenty of brushes and colors--it would keep my occupied for a while.

And it did.

Mor came to visit two days later, and she was astonished at the work I’d done. Her favorite was the canvas I’d filled with eyes--her eyes, Cassian’s, Azriel’s, Amren’s. “I thought I might put it in the foyer,” I remarked, and that made Mor laugh.

“Is it really so bad?” she asked over a spoonful of ice cream as the sun went down outside. “To be a part of our family, tangled history and all?”

“No,” I admitted as I licked my spoon. “No, it’s not.”

-

1900 15 APR 2022. McLean, Virginia, United States of America

Mor stayed overnight and then told me she’d be back in a few more days to see how I was. She told me not to hurry home--that I could stay here as long as I liked.

I did. I spent five days doing almost nothing but painting and reading the many books Rhys had stocked up throughout the different rooms of the house. By the end of five days, I had completed a painting for every bedroom plus the painting of the eyes--ten total. I’d painted everything from abstract motifs to views of the yard outside to a rendering of the stained-glass ceiling in the living room. And as I painted, I daydreamed. I looked out over the yard and imagined what it might be like to take refuge here in the full spring and summer, when New York was even more crowded than usual.

I saw the guys horsing around in the swimming pool behind the house while Mor and I tanned on the lawn chairs and egged them on. I saw myself actually going with Rhys to the Met and all the art museums in New York and decorating the apartment with my paintings. I thought about volunteering to teach painting once I got good enough, maybe trying to sell my art again--or donate it for auctions to benefit veterans’ programs. And I’d continue helping Rhys build Knight Tech, knowing that his technology was helping thousands, maybe millions, and feeling like I was making a difference in the world. Then we’d come home at night and have Mor and Cassian and Azriel over for drinks and chatter, and when they were gone Rhys and I . . .

Rhys and I. We’d be together, sitting out on the balcony watching the lights of the city. He’d pour me wine and ask me about my day and the shadows would be gone from his face. Happy. Free. Both of us. That skyline wasn’t just a comfort, it was a promise. A promise of a future, one . . . one that I desperately wanted.

And I knew what I had to do.

I jerked up in surprise from where I’d been lost in thought in the dining room, surrounded by my paints and canvases, at the sound of a loud knock on the door. I frowned--there was a doorbell. I shrugged my sweater closer around my shoulders and padded across the living room to the front door. I swung it open, and my heart did a somersault in my chest.

Rhys.

He stared at me, and I stared at him as he stood across the threshold--waiting. Waiting to see how I’d react, if I’d send him away. And I knew he’d go, if I asked him to. Wouldn’t push or press me or plead his case. But he was here. To find out my answer.

I stepped aside and let him in. He shrugged off his coat and hung it in the closet by the door. When he turned back, he noticed the paintings of his friends’ eyes, which I’d hung right beside the door to the library. “You painted us,” he said softly, and hearing his voice was like being blessed with a symphony after so much silence.

“I hope you don’t mind.”

He studied the painting. “Azriel, Mor, Amren, and Cassian,” he said. He glanced at me, still careful. “What about my eyes?”

I sucked in a breath, steeling myself. “I was afraid to paint them.”

Rhys turned his full attention to me. “Why?”

“At first, because I was so mad at you for not telling me. Then because I was worried I’d like them too much and find that you couldn’t forgive me for leaving. Then because I was scared that if I painted them, I’d start wishing you were here so much that I’d just stare at them all day. And it seemed like a pathetic way to spend my time.”

A shadow of amusement flickered over Rhys’s lips. “Indeed.”

“Did you drive straight here?”

Rhys nodded. “Mor didn’t tell me where you were, but it wasn’t hard to guess. It took a while for everything to get straightened out in New York, and after that I wanted to give you time . . . but once I decided to come I didn’t want to stop, because I didn’t want to lose my nerve and turn around.”

“You must be hungry. I’ll heat something up.”

“You’d--make me food?”

“Heat,” I said. “I can’t cook. Unless you want an MRE, but I don’t have one on hand and I wouldn’t subject you to such torment.” The military survival packs--Meals Ready to Eat--were only edible on the luckiest of occasions. I’d had my fair share of them in the past.

Rhys snorted and walked across the living room toward the dining room while I popped into the kitchen to grab a can of soup. I dumped it into two bowls and stuck them in the microwave. When I came out into the dining room, Rhys was staring at my paintings.

“Um . . . I got a little carried away,” I said sheepishly. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologize,” Rhys said, his voice hoarse. “They’re beautiful.” He glanced sideways at me, and I knew we were both thinking about the same thing. And I wasn’t going to avoid it.

“It was you, those years ago. Buying my paintings.”

Rhys nodded.

“Why bother? Was it . . . boredom? Or pity?”

Rhys hissed and said, “No. Believe me, Feyre. It was nothing like that.” He ran his hand through his hair and sank down onto a chair at the dining table, nudging aside one of my palettes with his hand. Behind me, the microwave beeped and I brought out two bowls of soup. I took the chair to Rhys’s left and stirred my meal. “When your store went up, it was right around the time I started volunteering to supply the allies in Ukraine. It . . . it was not an easy decision to do so, given what had happened to my mother and sister, and all the memories it brought up. It was probably the lowest I’d been since the plane crash. And then, somehow my browser recommendations led me to your store--I don’t even remember how--and I saw your paintings and I thought . . . this person knows me. Of course, you were a complete stranger, but the things you painted--the mountains, the winter woods, the flowers--it was like you’d drawn them straight from my heart. And it was such a comfort to me. I needed to have them. I was devastated when you stopped selling them, but . . . I had the few I’d managed to purchase. And at night when dreams of the chaos in Ukraine and the hell of war kept cycling through my mind, I would wake up in the middle of the night and see your paintings, and . . . they calmed me. Like nothing else ever had.”

My mouth was dry despite the soup I was eating. “They aren’t even very good.”

Rhys’s grip was tense on his spoon. “Feyre, they were everything.” He sighed and took another bite of his soup, as though preparing himself for what he was planning to say next. “It was like the heavens had opened up and blessed me the night I met you--that New Year’s Eve. It seemed too good to be true that this woman who had spoken to my soul across distances could be standing in front of me. You looked at me, and you weren’t afraid of me or intimidated by me. Everyone in my world had some sort of opinion about me already, and you didn’t, and it felt like a chance at something new and good. But then I thought of the complications. My father, the war, the company . . . and I feared you’d be like the others--good for a time, but unwilling to accept all of me. So I turned to go, to leave you. But then you called after me, like you couldn’t let go of me just yet, whether you knew it or not.”

I had--that night, I had kept him from walking away, if only for a moment. And I wasn’t sure why I had. Perhaps his comment about my painting had emboldened me, or I wanted to leave the encounter on higher ground, but . . . I had stopped him from leaving.

Rhys continued, “I was so stunned that when you did walk away I couldn’t stop you. It wasn’t like I’d exactly been invited to the party, either, so it didn’t seem wise to stay. It wasn’t until weeks later that I saw you again, on Tamlin’s arm . . . then I knew that you couldn’t be mine, no matter what bond I’d thought existed between our souls.” Rhys huffed a breath as he stared at the table, his soup almost forgotten. “My temper got out of hand that night. Because seeing you, on his arm . . . it made me think of the other things he had ruined--our friendship, perhaps my family. And the thought of him ruining you, too . . . it was unconscionable. So I behaved badly.”

I nodded and swallowed another spoonful of soup. Rhys had crashed the fundraiser and argued publicly with Tamlin--and he’d targeted some of his words at me, too, as though trying to embarrass me . . . maybe to goad Tamlin into defending me? He’d been crass and rude--maybe drunk, I considered--and that had been my last memory of him before . . . before Russia.

“I regretted it afterward,” Rhys said, “as is typically my fashion. I’d hated the way I’d made you look at me, but I could only imagine the things Tamlin had already made you believe about me. So I’d thought it was a lost cause, anyway. Ten days later I was back in Ukraine, then everything went pear-shaped and I wound up in Russia.

“At that point, I’d considered killing myself. But when Amarantha offered me to bargain--design equipment for her, aid her cause . . . I realized it was the only chance I had of making a real difference. It would be difficult, and dangerous, but if I earned her trust I could spy on her. Of course, once she made me her whore . . . that became all the easier.”

The soup had turned bitter in my mouth and I almost pushed the bowl away.

“Through it all,” Rhys said, his voice almost a whisper now, “I would think of your paintings. Of the colors, the images. I only had a few to treasure, but I clung to them. You know what it was like there--so dark and cold. So when I was starting to lose hope I would think of what you had painted, to remind myself that light and color did exist in the world.

“But then . . . I was there that day when they brought you in. And I thought this had to be some sick, cruel joke that you, this artist, had become a soldier and was now in hell with me. And I have never known such horror, Feyre, as I did when I realized that you would be tormented. Irrational, stupid terror--I didn’t know you. I didn’t even know your name. But I thought of those painter’s hands, the art you’d created, and how Amarantha would delight in breaking your fingers apart. I had to stand and watch as they beat you. I had to watch the disgust and hatred on your face as you looked at me, and then . . . and then I learned your name. Hearing you say it . . . it was like an answer to a question I’d been asking all my life.

“I decided, then and there, that I was going to fight. Screw Springer and Jurian and the U.S. government--I was done waiting on them. I was going to fight dirty, and kill and torture and manipulate, but I was going to fight. If there was a shot of freeing us from Amarantha, you were it. I pretended--always pretended to be that person you hated. When you were hurt so badly and had that fever, I found my way in with you. A way to defy Amarantha, a way to keep you alive. And a way to get back at Tamlin . . . to use him against Amarantha, yes, but . . . To get back at him for my mother and sister, and for . . . having you. When we made that bargain, you were so hateful that I knew I’d done my job well.

“So we endured it. I made you dress like that so Amarantha wouldn’t suspect, and gave you the alcohol to spare you from remembering the torment. I . . . I hate myself for that. And that last night, when I found you two in the closet . . . I was jealous. I was jealous of him, and pissed off that he’d used that one shot of being unnoticed not to get you out, but to be with you, and . . . Amarantha saw that jealousy. She saw me kissing you to hide the evidence, but she saw why. So that night, after I left you, I had to . . . service her. Afterward, I wanted to see you. One last time. Alone. I thought about telling you everything--but who I’d become, who you thought I was . . . I didn’t dare shatter that perception.

“But that last night came, and . . . when she started torturing you, something snapped in a way I couldn’t explain, only that seeing you bleeding and screaming undid me. It broke me at last. And I new as I picked up that knife to kill her . . . I knew right then that I loved you, and that you loved another man. But that didn’t matter--I didn’t care. If you were going to die, I was going to die with you. So you wouldn’t be alone, and I--I wouldn’t be alone anymore. I couldn’t stop thinking it over as you screamed, as I tried to kill her, as she broke your fingers: I loved you, I loved you, I loved you.

“But then she snapped your neck.”

Tears rolled down his face.

“And I thought you’d died.”

Tears were sliding down my own cheeks.

“And this beautiful, wonderful thing that had come into my life, this gift from God . . . it was gone. I went to you, and I’ll never be able to describe what I felt when I realized you were still there, still clinging on. I stabilized your neck, praying that you’d last long enough for the rescue to come. I couldn’t leave you--not even then, when freedom of my own was only footsteps away. Because I loved you.

“I thought about telling you in Germany, when you woke up. But you were so sad. And tired. And for once, you looked at me like . . . like I was worth something. And as I was leaving all I could think was that I was probably going to end up in prison and never see you again, and . . . it was too much to bear. So I just left.

“The second I got here, Mor was waiting for me with the lawyers, and the second I was alone with her, I told her all about you. I hadn’t seen her in two years and all I could talk about was you. After that, I endured the trial, the cross-sections, the investigations. I wasn’t allowed to leave this house. And, stupid as it was, I got through it by watching your show. Perhaps I was punishing myself. But if it was the only way I could see you, then I would take it. Even if seeing you in that state made me wild with fury. I told myself I wasn’t going to contact you, that I would let you be alone and happy, but when I was cleared and my house arrest was lifted, it was the day of your wedding and I . . . I had to see you. One last time. And . . . well, you know the rest.”

I nodded mutely as Rhys finally lifted his face to look at me. “It killed me, Feyre, that you kept going back to him. To see you waste away, little by little. But it was your choice--you’d had every choice taken away from you before, and I’d be damned if I treated you the same way. I didn’t tell you how I felt because I feared it would do just that--take your choice away. It was better than the two alternatives: that you felt nothing for me, or that you . . . you might feel something similar, and if I let myself truly love you, you would be taken from me. The way my family was--the way my friends were. So I didn’t tell you. But I recorded that video on SURIEL just in case things changed, in case we had built something but I’d still been too afraid to tell you. And everything I said there is true. I love you, Feyre. I love you with more of myself than I ever thought possible. And I’m sorry.”

He leaned back in his chair and let out a long, shaky breath as he ran his hand through his hair. He closed his eyes, and his lips quivered, and I wondered for a moment if he was praying.

I pushed my soup bowl aside and Rhys cracked an eyelid open at the sound. Then he opened both eyes as he watched me stand. “Aren’t you going to say anything?” he asked. He took a swig of water from the glass by the table, rinsing the taste of the soup from his mouth. It had likely gone bitter for him as it had for me.

“I was going to tell you what I thought the moment I saw you on the threshold,” I said.

Rhys sat up a little straighter. “And now?”

Counting my own heartbeats, I carefully approach him and sat down in his lap.His hand instinctively circled my hips and my hands held his shoulders and neck. “I want you to know, Rhysand, that I love you. I want you to know . . .” Rhys’s face crumpled and I brushed a tear from his cheek. “I want you to know that I am broken and healing, but every piece of my heart belongs to you. Rhys, I . . . I love you.”

Rhys shuddered with emotion and pulled me close to him, hiding his face and his tears in the shoulder of my sweater. I tipped his face up, and then I leaned in to kiss away his tears, as he had once kissed away mine. Then, watching my eyes closely for a moment, Rhys lifted his face and pressed his lips to mine.

It was heartbreakingly sweet and gentle--a kiss we might have shared if I’d been a simple painter and he’d been a simple businessman. That hadn’t been our lives. But I wouldn’t trade this for anything. I held him close and opened my mouth to him, and his tongue caressed mine with the same sweet gentleness.

The longer we kissed, the more that burned away to hot, desperate kisses. When Rhys hardened against me, I groaned--and unleashed him.

He scooped me up in his arms and laid me down on the table--right in the midst of all the paints. Above me I could see the chandelier of spun colored glass, and I stored the sight of it away to paint later--but now, all I wanted was Rhys’s mouth on mine. I closed my eyes as he bent over me and kissed me hungrily, all while stripping away my sweater and baring me before him. I moaned as he dragged his mouth down my neck, nipping my sensitive skin until his mouth found my breast. My hands tangled in his hair and my legs wrapped around his back to keep him close.

He braced himself on the table, and his hand landed directly in a palette of red paint. I trembled as a wicked smile crossed Rhys’s face and he dipped his finger toward my body, painting a circle around my breast and then down my torso toward my waistline. He finished it off with an arrow, and he growled, “Lest you forget where this is going to end.”

I groaned and tore at his shirt, and he happily let me tear it off as he ground his hips against me. That length--him . . . I’d felt it in the Court of Nightmares, in the motel, but now I would not let my curiosity go unsatisfied. My hands were covered in paint now and they left streaks of color through his hair and down his face as I held him to kiss him.

Rhys’s arms circled around my back and lifted me off the table again. I murmured something incoherent in his ear, and he laughed darkly. “Feyre darling . . . I have supplies upstairs.”

Realization washed over me and I nodded eagerly, and as he carried me up to his bedroom I kissed him madly all over his face, not wanting to let one second go by that I wasn’t kissing him. This . . . I had been craving this for so long, and now . . .

Rhys set me down on the bed in his room and disappeared briefly, leaving me to stare at my paintings on his wall. The paintings that had meant so much to him . . . my heart swelled with the desire and love in my body.

I was desperate, and I was about to go up and look for Rhys when he came back--a bottle and a couple of boxes in his capable hands. He glanced at me with a smirk on his face. “They’re Mor’s,” he explained as he set them down on the bedside table. “I don’t think she’ll mind.” He turned to face me. “Now . . . where were we?”

My fingers brushed over the arrow he’d painted onto me.

“Of course.”

He knelt before me and I started removing my leggings as he pulled the socks off my feet. Then he lifted his fingers to slowly roll my legging down, pressing kisses to the insides of my legs as he went. I whined at the feel of it and he laughed, slinging my legs up over his broad shoulders. I heard a crinkling of plastic and Rhys looked up. “Hold this in place for me, darling?” He extended a dental dam and I nodded, unable to find my voice. When I’d positioned it, Rhys leaned in and licked me, slow and sensuous, up the middle. Even with the dam, the sensation set me on fire and ripped a deep moan from my throat.

I want you spread out like my own personal feast.

He groaned in satisfaction at my smell, my reaction, and unleashed himself on me entirely. I released short, choked groans as he pleasured me, then practically sang for him as he replaced his tongue with his fingers--this time, covered by a condom. He continued to kiss my inner thighs, nipping at them as he worked me, and I was having trouble holding the dam as he sent sparks through my whole body. I gasped desperately as the first orgasm rocked me--but Rhys was not at all finished. He kept going, kissing and licking until he curled his fingers inside me and I shattered again, going limp with pleasure on top of the silken comforter.

“Feyre,” Rhys growled as he stood from his knees and bent over me to kiss me on the cheek. “You’re exquisite. Perfect. You’re mine.” He pulled away from me and I lifted myself on shaking arms to see him removing his pants and underwear, baring himself completely before me. He prowled toward me, snatching another condom off the side table. “Help me?” he asked, his voice like smoke.

I nodded and unwrapped the condom, leaning in to kiss him along his waistline, across those taut abdominal muscles, as I rolled the condom over him. He shuddered, and when I’d finished my task he took me by the shoulders and lowered me onto the bed beneath him. He hesitated just before he entered me, but I dug my nails into his skin and wiggled my hips under him to encourage him on.

And then he was filling me, and I had never in my life felt so complete. He moved slowly in me at first, then faster, until we were both gasping for breath. He didn’t have to go on long before another orgasm hit me and I clung tightly to him, whispering his name as we sealed our love. For I was his and he was mine, and we were the beginning and the middle and the end. We were a song that had been sung from the very first ember of light in the world. Rhys cried out my name as he came, and soon he had collapsed upon me, the room falling into silence. I took his paint-smeared face between my own colorful hands and made him look at me. And then I smiled.

Chapter Text

 

CHAPTER TWENTY--THE TRIAL

0800 16 APR 2022. McLean, Virginia, United States of America

I woke up in Rhysand’s arms, downright exhausted. We hadn’t been able to keep our hands off each other all night. But when I woke him up with a trail of kisses up his chest, he kissed me deeply and suggested we get breakfast. He hadn’t made it two steps out of bed when I pounced on him and rode him on the floor--so frantic that we almost forgot a condom.

But eventually, we did make it downstairs, and I chewed on an English muffin as Rhys poured us both orange juice. He hadn’t bothered to put a shirt on, and I didn’t mind in the least. He passed me a glass and kissed the top of my head, trailing his hand over the back of my shoulders as he pulled a stool out and sat beside me. “How are you feeling?” he asked warmly, running his hand up and down my back. He, too, couldn’t seem to get enough of touching me.

I raised my eyebrows. “I think even fantastic would be an understatement,” I said. Rhys smiled broadly and my heart fluttered in response.

“I think we’re about to run out of condoms,” he said with a smirk. “It was hard to keep you satisfied last night.” He touched the tip of my nose.

“Oh, I was satisfied,” I corrected. “Sated is another question entirely.”

“Nice to know I lived up to my promises, darling,” Rhys laughed.

I sobered as I suddenly realized something. “I know we were careful,” I said, “but I’m not on birth control. Haven’t been since getting back from Russia. First it was interfering with my pain meds, then my cycle stopped altogether, and then the antidepressants . . . I never got around to taking it again once I got better.”

Rhys nodded in understanding and took my hand in his. “We can run to the pharmacy and get you some Plan B, just in case.” He kissed the back of my knuckles. “And get more condoms.” He winked.

“I don’t want to assume anything,” I hedged. “Being pregnant . . . it’s not just about me.”

Rhys frowned. “Feyre, it’s your body. Children are . . . well, I would be lying if I said I never wanted them. But I don’t want you to have them unless you want to--unless we both want to. And right now, with the upcoming investigation and the company and everything else, I’ll admit that I’m nervous about you being pregnant, especially since your body has only just healed.”

I let out a relieved breath. “Plan B it is. Just in case.” I rolled my shoulders and stood from my stool, realizing how badly I needed a shower. I kissed his cheek and headed out of the kitchen.

“I would be happy beyond reason, though, if you one day did honor me with children. To share that with you,” Rhys murmured from behind me.

I paused in the doorway and looked back at him. “I want to live first,” I said, “with you. I want to see things and have adventures. I want to learn what it is to be me, to be yours, to be part of your family. I want to be . . . ready for them. And I selfishly want to have you all to myself for a while.”

Rhys’s smile soothed my soul. “You take all the time you need. And if I get you all to myself for the rest of our lives, I won’t mind that at all.”

I only made it to the other side of the living room before Rhys swept me up in his arms and carried me upstairs, where we took a very hot shower together.

-

1645 17 APR 2022. McLean, Virginia, United States of America

Rhys and I drove back to New York that Sunday after Amren called and said that the investigation involving Rhys’s files would begin on Monday and he would need to be around for it.

“Maybe this will all be put to rest at last,” I said, holding his hand over the center console as he drove.

“I’d love that,” Rhys said. “It’s like the last stains of Russia sticking to us.” He grimaced. “Is it wrong that I really, really want Tamlin’s father to go to prison?”

“No,” I said without hesitation. “He committed treason. He--he left you in Russia, ignored your communication that you risked your life for.”

“The attention will be back on us,” Rhys said. “The press will be all over it. Are you . . . are you okay with that? I can make it so that you’re not involved at all.”

“Not a chance,” I said firmly. “I’m in this with you, Rhysand. We’ve come too far together. I’m not leaving you.”

Rhys sighed, a sad smile on his face. “I don’t deserve you.”

My heart tightened with emotion. I reached out and stroked his hair. “We deserve each other. And we deserve to be happy.”

Rhys had to pull over so that he could show me with his mouth and his hands what exactly that meant to him.

We arrived back in New York to a warm greeting from the others--Mor was practically squealing with delight when she heard we’d made up and finally come to an agreement. Cassian teased Rhys relentlessly until I had to tell him to shut up. But Rhys treated us all to a fine dinner at Sidra, and for the first time, I felt entirely at home.

When we got back to the apartment, I paused at the door to my room, realizing . . .

“We can use your room if you like, but . . .” Rhys purred from behind me, leaning against the doorframe to his room. “Either your room or mine--but we’re sharing one from now on. Just tell me whether I should move my clothes or yours. If that’s all right with you.”

“Don’t you--you don’t want your own space?”

“No,” Rhys said. “Unless you do. I need you protecting me from my terrible nightmares.”

I locked eyes with him and then indicated his room. “Your bed is bigger.”

Rhys smirked and pushed the door open, letting me in first. As I got comfortable, he walked to his bureau and picked up a small box, which he handed to me.

I flipped it open, and my heart clenched. “Your mother’s ring?”

“After the divorce, my mother said I would get that ring back from Whitley upon my maturity. Or, if Whitley refused to give it back--something my mother knew was a possibility--that the woman to whom I wanted to give it would have to go ask for it herself. And if Whitley was impressed . . . then that woman would be worthy enough for me to marry. And I, in turn, would be worthy of her.”

My face was hot. “So I won my wedding ring without even being asked if I wanted to marry you.”

“Perhaps.”

“Are you--are you asking me to marry you?” Usually Rhys put a little more thought into things than this. I wasn’t disappointed . . . just very confused.

“I had a few ideas about that, actually,” Rhys said, taking the ring out of my hands and setting it aside.

“Your ideas are quite notorious,” I said as he approached me.

Rhys laughed. “You know me too well.” He kissed me deeply, and any care or argument I had in me leaked right out the tips of my toes as he laid me against the sheets and told me his wicked plans.

-

1430 19 AUG 2022. Washington, D.C., United States of America

Four months later, the evidence of Bernard Springer’s treason had been brought to a grand jury. But, surprising to no one, he had excellent attorneys, and it required intense testimony and attorneys of our own to work to convince the grand jury of the truth.

Rhys had been right--the press attention had been relentless since the trial began, and we got used to a swarm of press vehicles parked beneath our apartment building in New York City. Whenever we got tired of it, we had Cassian bring in one of his hobby copters to fly us out from the roof to our refuge in Virginia, where we stayed as often as possible.

I had gotten used to fielding the questions. I was no longer the frightened, helpless reality television star. I was Knight Tech’s primary representative, and speaking in front of intense individuals had become second nature to me. For the sake of his company and the trial, Rhys preferred to avoid interviews, allowing Mor and I to act as his surrogates on morning news slots. By the time it came for me to testify, I was well-practiced.

I walked into the courthouse that afternoon, two years since being first captured by Amarantha in Russia, and did not flinch once at the flashing cameras and clamoring reporters. I stepped up to the witness stand and looked out over the courtroom. I hardly blinked when I saw Bernard Springer standing there--the man who, by his selfish inaction, had almost gotten me, his son, and Rhysand killed. He was so mediocre in every way. It was hard to believe I’d once been intimidated by him.

My breath caught in my chest only slightly when I saw Tamlin in the seats. He looked at me with a wounded, betrayed expression on his face. But it no longer did the damage it once had.

I fielded the prosecutor’s questions and the questions of the defense. It was lengthy, and even with my practice and coaching from the lawyers, it was exhausting. I was required to dig through my trauma, relive some of the worst moments of my life. But whenever I started to waver, whenever the panic flickered at the edges of my vision, Vitality buzzed at my wrist, reminding not just how to calm myself, but that Rhys was supporting me. And I would find his violet eyes in the crowd and he would nod, and I would press on. When it was his turn to testify, I did the same for him.

When court was adjourned for the day, I lingered with Rhys in the courtroom, waiting for the biggest rush of people to flood out. I held his hand and looked into his eyes.

“Why are you doing this, Feyre?”

The voice wasn’t Rhys’s. I turned around and saw Tamlin standing on the other side of the hall, staring me down with piercing green eyes. I held my ground and his stare and moved my body between him and Rhysand. He noticed the posturing and sneered.

“Not so impressive without your henchmen, are you, Tam?” Rhys taunted. I squeezed his hand to tell him to shut up. It was true, though. Lucien, after the evidence had been brought forward, decided that he wanted to jump the train before it went off the rails. He’d started working with wounded veterans instead, and our paths had crossed at one of Rhys’s events for Vitality this summer. Elain had been visiting from Virginia, saddened by her recent breakup with her fiancé, and they’d bumped into each other at the mixer after the event. One thing had led to another, and now they were an item. And Lucien was far happier than I’d ever seen him.

“I care about this country,” I answered. “Your father committed treason, Tamlin. It almost got you killed. I’m honestly not sure why you’re defending him.”

“And I’m not sure why you’re defending him,” Tamlin hissed, “after all he did to you!”

I laughed faintly. “You don’t have the slightest idea what you’re talking about.”

“He did tell you he almost killed me once, right?”

“After you spewed anti-Semitic garbage at him,” I said. “If I remember right, that’s called, ‘talk shit, get hit.’”

Tamlin jolted at my language and my frankness. “I don’t even know you anymore.”

“You never knew me, Tamlin.”

“We were getting married, Feyre! How did I not know you?”

I rolled my eyes. “If you’d known me, and cared, you might have realized that I was in no psychological state to be making decisions that would affect the rest of my life. That I wasn’t well, and that I needed more time. If you’d known me, you’d have known what I needed.” I glanced at Rhysand, who was running soothing circles on the inside of my wrist with his thumb.

Tamlin turned his glare from me to Rhys. “You stole her from me!” he seethed. “You filthy, whoring--”

The next word to pass Tamlin’s lips was so foul that I leapt across the hallway to punch him in the jaw. He swore and stumbled back, clutching his face. My knuckles rang, but almost a year of training with Cassian had built up my strength. “Talk shit, get hit,” I repeated. I leaned close to his face. “Don’t you ever speak to my husband like that again!” I spat.

“Your--your what?

“My husband,” I repeated, stepping back into Rhys’s arms. “I’m Feyre Knight, now. We just had our four-month anniversary. All hush-hush, of course. Didn’t want the spectacle.” Truthfully, we’d gotten married by a judge just before the indictment so that we would both have legal protection going forward. We wanted to leave nothing to chance. We still planned to have a proper wedding in a synagogue after the trial was over, but for now . . . it was enough just to have a handful of people in on the secret.

Tamlin just swore to himself and scrambled to his feet, still holding his jaw. Whatever bravado had inspired him to come confront us and win me back had left him.

“Run along, Tamlin,” Rhys said from behind me. “Tell your father we said hello.”

Tamlin just snarled and stalked off down the hallway. Rhys spun me around in his arms and placed a kiss on my lips. “You amaze me every day, you realize that?”

“Of course. I have to keep you on your toes,” I answered smugly, kissing him in return.

“When this is all over, we’re taking a nice long vacation,” Rhys said.

“Someplace quiet?” I suggested.

“And private,” Rhys agreed. And he held my hand tightly as we left the courthouse and faced the press outside, silent and strong in each others’ company.

-

1900 01 JAN 2023. New York City, New York, United States of America

Bernard Springer was formally convicted a few weeks later. The press went wild, and it was weeks of interviews and press conferences as the details of the trial were carefully released to the public. Knight Tech’s busiest season was made all the more intense by the renewed public interest in Rhys’s products--it became a symbol of patriotism to own a Knight Tech device. I found the whole idea vaguely disturbing, but not enough to discourage anyone. 

Though we postponed it until after Hanukkah and the holiday season, Rhys and I held to our promise to have a proper wedding in the synagogue. The summer, with the emotional challenges, had affirmed Rhys’s decision to start attending worship more often. When I saw the good it did him, I began attending with him, and in the end, I realized that this was part of the family I had chosen. Though it was a long and sometimes difficult process, I finally converted. Not long after my birthday, Rhys and I were married properly in the synagogue as Ziva and Amichai--Rhys’s Jewish name. It was a joyous and beautiful affair--and it completely erased the trauma of the last time I had tried to be a bride. And afterward, Rhys swept me away to a private cabin in the Rocky Mountains for an extended honeymoon, where we stayed up late and watched the stars fall through the violet sky over the snow-capped peaks, relishing the feeling of being absolutely free.

Absolutely free--and absolutely in love.