Spending money was not Cassian's forte. Spending money on gifts was completely out of his realm of understanding. It wasn't that he didn't like the idea of doing something kind or purchasing something for a loved one, but some people were more difficult to shop for than others. Some, if Cassian was being honest, had high standards. Or he believed they did so completely that the pressure might have been more devastating than the battlefield.
He had spent a long time looking for Nesta's gift. Everything had paled in comparison to what he had wanted to give her, and even talking to Elain left him second-guessing the choices he had made. Was anything more difficult? How were others so good at this? He missed the ease of Solstice at the townhouse, when everyone threw gifts at one another without thought because time and friendship left no room for questions.
Cassian, as he sat with Nesta in front of the fire in the private room of a tiny upscale winery, was questioning everything.
The location felt special in that it wasn't their apartment. Cassian went through effort, because there was no task too much for Nesta, of securing privacy ("How much to close your shop for an hour?" he had asked the clerk, who seemed surprised, until Cassian had shelled out a stupid amount of the money he barely spent.) The room was meant for exclusive tastings, with plush chairs and low tables, which were currently filled with their flight of wine and fae-appropriate finger foods.
It was cozy with just the two of them—at least Cassian thought so. He had barely drank any of his wine, nerves.
"Is it too much?" Cassian asked. "I thought the quiet would be nice. No one to bother us."
Nesta liked the quiet. She didn’t get much of it, with the push of other people’s feelings nipping at her toes always, and the pull of customers or people in constant need of something around her. Elain and Cassian were exceptions to the rule, though the latter was one she loathed to admit for the longest time.
Now it was easier to come to terms with. There was also a sense of smugness deep within her that could have brandished Cassian as a trophy against her sister and brother-in-law, who she was certain wouldn’t approve of Nesta being the one to get her “claws” into him.
The Corruption of Cassian. She liked that. A slow smile came to her face as she took a long sip of the first wine, the darkest red on the flight. “I like it quiet, less dealing with people.” She knew he knew that about her already, and Nesta liked that, too. She stroked a manicured finger down his arm. “I’m just shocked you were able to book it during the week of Solstice.”
Cassian watched Nesta with curiosity, always aware of her shifts in moods—despite oftentimes stepping right into it with a fight. He could hear Rhysand whispering questions as to why: why the effort, why the agony, why her? And Cassian, even without that bond between them, didn't need a reason to know what he felt for Nesta was more than what the outside saw of her.
But with her finger running down his arm, rational thought seemed to disappear, and Cassian took a deep steadying breath. Instinct made him want to rip the wine away and kiss her senseless, but all the steps he took with Nesta were careful, deliberate, and strategic. It was the Illyrian in him that kept himself in check.
That slow smile though, the one Cassian knew she used when she thought of something she didn't share with him, undid him.
He stretched his arms along the back of the couch in response, half around Nesta. He was posturing, sounding particularly smug with his huge gregarious smile as he said, "I called in a few favors, and maybe threatened the clerk. I'm sure he wanted to deal with patrons instead of me, but I convinced him in the end." Cassian leaned in a bit to Nesta's space, inching closer than the space on the sofa allowed.
"Are you impressed?" That sounded needy. Cassian clarified. "Is there something—" Missing wasn't the right word. "Else you need? I have something else for you for when you're finished with that." He nodded to the glass in her hand.
In response, Nesta took a slow, deliberate sip. It was good, so it was no hardship to use the wine to torture Cassian in the tamest of ways. She could savor the glass while he squirmed just a little next to her. And maybe her thought process came through, as she glanced over at him out of the corner of her eye. “Bribery and threats, tsk tsk, Illyrian.”
Oh, even for her tsking, she liked it. She liked him, as much as the quiet. But Cassian was an emotional person, with everything from pleasure to turmoil right there on his face for reading. That was the sort of thing she couldn’t relate to, everything of hers was under the surface, but it was the kind of people she liked to be around. Cassian had more honesty in that huge smile of his than Nesta did in her entire body.
“Is it a book? That’s the only thing I can think of that would make this better,” she kept idly tracing her finger up and down his arm, knowing it was a distraction. “Is it something that requires use of both hands?”
Cassian opened his mouth, and his expression fell briefly, momentarily. Because if he wasn't proudly displaying his emotional thought process, something was wrong. A book would have been better, but then it required scouring her library shelves, attempting to root out the favorites versus the other favorites, finding a topic that interested her that she could relate to Cassian. A book was Nesta's preferred tastes, and he second-guessed his choice almost immediately.
But that damned casual touch she kept on him was making it difficult to feel badly. He swallowed hard, and shook his head. "It is not a book, but it might require both hands. At least to open the wrapping." The one thing he did not do—tiny folds with delicate paper.
He reached over the side of the sofa for the box he had tucked away out of sight. There needed to be some surprise that he had anything at all. It was a small-but-heavy square box in thick cream paper and a sprig of winter pine.
"If you hate it," Cassian said, passing over the gift. "I only ask that you give me a moment before you tell me you do."
Nesta took one last long sip from her wine before setting it aside, attention focused on the gift she was being offered. She could feel his apprehension, and felt a little bad for being the cause of it, but she also knew from experience that neither of them liked things easy.
But her fingers moved from his arm to the box, and ran delicately over the smooth paper across the pine. One of her favorite scents. Her gift for him was also similarly tucked away in a small box in her bag, a few feet from where they were sitting, so she left it there for now.
With an impatient start, Nesta flicked a finger over one of the folds, pulling it away and up slowly as she met his gaze. A smile played at the corner of her lips, teasing. “How long of a moment? Should I give you a running start?”
Cassian made a noise that sounded like maybe. Running away though was not something Cassian did. He would suffer through, since he had put himself in this position. He watched carefully as Nesta unveiled the first part: an ornately carved wooden box, a solid piece of mahogany with brass hinges and a heavy lock.
"It's flowers, for your sister and you." He didn't use plural, knowing that Feyre, while still blood, was not necessarily who Nesta wanted to remember every time she opened the box. Elain was the better choice, the best choice. She had also been the one to instruct Cassian on what language each flower spoke: tulips, orchids, and peonies. Cassian had been woefully out of his element.
But inside the velvet lined box was something else. A necklace, a sizeable locket with dark metal filigree and a dull red stone in the middle, jaggedly cut like it was a sliver of something bigger. "I know how much you want to keep things precious to you locked away, and I thought perhaps you might like a physical reminder instead of a figurative one." His fingertip grazed along her temple, sweeping back a stray lock of her hair.
Cassian cleared his throat a little, nodding toward the locket. "The stone is—it's my way of saying I will protect them too."
“Cassian,” she breathed out his name, not a word she used often, so throwing it around came with dedicated purpose. She opened her mouth to follow it up, and then closed it again, hands taking in every edge of the box and the locket, fingers smoothing over the delicate carvings.
Nesta blinked away a few tears before they got the better of her, and touched the locket again. “A portion of a siphon?” She’d seen the rock before, and strongly suspect it was in fact a piece of him. What made Cassian one of the greatest generals, a power harnessed and something he had cultivated for far, far longer than she had ever been alive.
It was, by large, something of him that he didn’t share, for obvious reasons. Nesta pushed aside any desire to tease him and instead leaned in to kiss him, slowly and deliberately, hand coming up to graze the side of his face and rest against the stubble there. When she pulled away from the sweet gesture, her voice was raw. “Thank you.”
The reaction had been unexpected. It had never been his intention to make her upset—and he was sure this wasn't the same thing—but the way she was staring at the locket, asking him if it was part of the siphon meant that the gesture had touched on something. He nodded to her question, surprised that she had caught on so quickly; he hadn't meant to make it be about that.
Cassian had spent so long worrying if it was too much, that perhaps she didn't need him to protect her (though he would argue that point). All of the uncertainty vanished with her lips on his.
He moved into action, his own hands coming up to hold her close, kissing her back with the same fierce devotion that swirled inside him, always at the ready. Her mouth tasted of wine, but sweeter almost, being more Nesta that the drink. And he sighed, pleased and torn, when she pulled away. But it was only a negligible space; Cassian was close enough to kiss her again just by tilting his head.
"You do not have to thank me," Cassian said, whispering despite it only being the two of them. His hand smoothed over her shoulder, down to the small of her back. "I am a poor gift giver, even after all this time together with everyone I know. So you can imagine that with our short time together how much I worried you might not like jewelry from me." He did kiss her again then, soft and brief. "I may have asked your sister for help."
Nesta made a little noise much like a cat would, when attention was given but the feline wasn’t quite ready to purr. She didn’t hiss, though, and that was probably the highest compliment Nesta could give Cassian.
“What would you have preferred?” There was a tone of lecture in her, but lighter than what Nesta normally edged on. “That I hated it? Told you “no, thank you, please return.” I can’t do that, I didn’t give you time to run away first.” Nesta cut off her tone with a kiss to his jaw before leaning away so she could turn, presenting Cassian with the back of her neck. She pulled the hair hanging down up and out of the way, giving him the chance to put the locket on her.
Nesta turned her head slightly to peek at him out of the corner of her eye. “But now you have to promise my gift will be enough.”
Cassian laughed, a big, full-bodied thing. The kind he used when he was comfortable, in the townhouse, amongst Rhysand and Azriel. But now he was comfortable here, with Nesta. He had never had any doubt, it was too easy to put his guard down for her. And given the way she was exposing her neck to him without hesitation, Cassian thought maybe she was feeling that guard slip too.
He was careful to put the locket on her, his own fingers feeling almost clunky and too harsh for the deceptively delicate chain. Cassian fumbled, but managed to get it, his hand stroking a long line down her spine before settling on her lower back.
"Would you like a running start?" Cassian asked, but his voice was light and playful; the hardest part of the gift-giving was over for him. Everything else was simply an added bonus. "I promise that nothing you would give me I would hate. I am not one to turn things away, and especially not from you." He didn't need to explain how much he spent of his youth clawing for every scrap he owned. And he loved Nesta—anything she gave that made her think of him was enough.
"Do I need to guess?"
Nesta had very few fond Solstice memories. When they were very, very young children, perhaps, but it felt like three lifetimes ago instead of twenty years. When their mother had died, when everything went sour, things changed. There were no more gifts given or celebrations, they had been lucky to eat - it was a road of thoughts she didn’t want to go down, not when they were so far removed.
Giving her a fresh set of memories, with the two people she wasn’t afraid to admit were most important to her.
Okay, maybe a little afraid to admit that. At least as far as Cassian was concerned.
“Elain called it practical, so if you want a guess, now is the time.” Nesta brushed a hand across his thigh as she stood gracefully, retrieved the small black box and came back, opting to offer it to him while she was still standing. “I’m staying here, in case I need that running start after all.”
His attention was heavy on Nesta as she touched his thigh and moved around the room to grab his gift. The world dropped away with her standing in front of him, handing him the box. He didn't start into the gift right away. Instead he reached a hand up to her hip, admiring the necklace hanging around her neck. Despite that bond that permeated everything, Cassian felt the closest when he could keep in constant contact with her.
"Practical has never been my preference, but I'm willing to try if you thought so," Cassian said, unwrapping the gift but never looking away from Nesta. He seemed far more interested in her reaction to the present than seeing what it was. But as he held the box in his hand, his curiosity got the better of him and he glanced down. His face scrunched up momentarily confused, then back to Nesta for confirmation. Finding nothing immediately explanatory, Cassian lifted the pieces out of the box.
It became apparent the moment he held them in his hands—these were for his wings. Cassian's smile grew a hundred times wider, pleased by the thoughtfulness of the gift and also the fact that Nesta chose something for his wings; a notable contentious part of him. His wings twitched appreciatively.
"Should I wait to put them on, or should I turn around and have you do the honors?"
Practical has never been my preference had her frowning, just slightly. Red lips turned down the same as her gaze on him, and she knew he couldn’t have missed that with the way he was looking at her instead of the gift.
It put her on edge, suddenly feeling like a young girl, unsure and tepid over giving the boy she liked a gift. How ridiculous it was, given she was a fully grown woman. Why should she care what he thinks of her gift?
But then he was smiling that stupid smile. Ridiculous smile. It made her stomach flutter to the degree where she had to ignore it. Nesta arched her chin up, sticking it out just slightly. “Turn, I prefer the view from the back anyway.” She held out her hand for the adornments, still not telling him that it wasn’t all looks involved in the wing jewelry. That would be for him to figure out.
Her frown, followed closely by her sticking out her chin, made him smile as he reached up to touch her cheek briefly. "Don't be like that, Nesta, not with me," Cassian said, a quiet request. It was a lot to ask from her, knowing it was not as simple as he made it seem. But if he reminded her, kept providing that ease in which she could exist without having to hold herself back, that might be enough.
But he turned around regardless, passing along the cuffs, flexing his wings a little to place underneath Nesta's hands. It would be a mighty lie if Cassian wasn't a little keyed up with anticipation. For all his posturing about flying, another's touch to his wings still caused some deep-rooted apprehension to flare up. Nesta's touch drew something else out of him entirely.
So he filled the space with talking instead—it kept him distracted from the assault of emotions that seemed to not settle. "How is the view, since it is your preference? I admit that it's not mine. I do not like having you out of sight, but concessions can be made." Cassian turned his head, catching Nesta's form from his peripheral.
"I am surprised that you went this route with a gift," Cassian said, amusement creeping into his voice. "I thought you hated them."
Her hand wandered, just below it’s destination, running over the side of his hip before leaning in to press a gentle kiss to the (regrettably) clothed space between Cassian’s wings. “You’ll live. This view is more than welcome.” She squeezed around his hip, just for emphasis, with a little smirk creeping up. But they were technically in a public place and couldn’t get carried away here - she assumed Cassian didn’t pay extra for that - and turned focus onto his wings.
They managed to be both elegant and formidable things, long and powerful. She’d seen them injured too many times, patched them up, healed them with her own hands. But those same hands traced over the outer edges now, remembering other times where she’d grabbed them for leverage or stroked a hand over the tip just to make Cassian twitch.
“I don’t hate them,” Nesta corrected, her mouth in a firm line now. She gently placed the silver at the highest tip of his wing and gave a pleased hum when it fit perfectly. “I dislike flying.” She moved to the next wing, fingers running along the edge as she went. “But I doubt I could hate anything that was yours.”
That was a heavy statement, but honest and Nesta quickly slipped on the second tip, and watched as the enchantment flared to life, a starry night washing over the black of Cassian’s wings, projecting the night sky of Velaris against the delicate skin. “At least I don’t have to complain to Gilmore.”
This was torture. Exquisite, terrible, lovely torture. It took every ounce of will power he had not to turn around, forgo the gift, and press Nesta into the sofa. He could swear he still felt Nesta's hands on him even after she stepped back. She had to be aware of what she was doing—Cassian would bet on it—and he would never complain, he would never tell her to stop.
Cassian had a retort ready, exceptionally pleased that Nesta couldn't hate anything that was his, but he was lost immediately to the glamour from the cuff. A sharp pang of homesickness came over him, the expression plain across his face, at seeing the sky of Velaris in his wings. How many times had he looked up in Vallo and found it lacking?
He stretched a wing out, unveiling more, more, more of a place he missed desperately. Cassian tore his gaze away from the stars to Nesta, just as bright as they were. He gathered her up in his arms, a rush of passion as he kissed her then. No teasing, no self-assured flirtation, just an honest press of his lips to hers.
"Thank you," Cassian said, framing her face with his hands. "You had to tell him, didn't you? Gilmore has never been to Velaris. This was you."
Nesta hummed quietly, pressing her face into his hand, shying just slightly away from the attention put on her so openly. Her confidence hid away in times of modesty and there was already the worry that the gift wouldn’t please him. The kiss put some of that to rights, and Nesta could feel Cassian’s mood as she always did.
It helped. She was able to relax, to let his touch permeate under her skin, without raising her hackles as it had in the past.
“Of course,” Nesta pulled a hand away from him just to wave it casually, as if it had all been nothing. “The skies of Velaris were my favorite part of it. The only time I could look up and feel completely at peace when the walls were closing in-” She cut off that statement, not wanting to delve deep into something neither of them could control. Nesta brought a hand up to trace along the mostly obscured veins of his wing. “It offers magical protection, as well. Gilmore is responsible for that part.”
He knew where the cut-off sentiment was going, and had been ready to intervene on her behalf, to provide a distraction. Both of them needed a bit of space from the darker moments—just for a little while longer. Cassian wanted Nesta to have some day, some holiday, some sort of good memory to smooth over the years of other ones. This was supposed to be a step in that direction.
Cassian quickly snapped up her hand, knowing that the other alternative was this; Nesta could enjoy Velaris with him, in his wings, but if her hands were always going to be on him, he needed to steel his resolve a little better or nothing would get done.
Pressing his mouth to her fingers, Cassian looked thoroughly interested in the protection. "I will wear them as much as possible then. For my safety and your peace of mind?" Cassian guessed, his attention slipping to his starry wings, then back to Nesta. "But if you keep touching them, there is a very real possibility we may be banned from this establishment. I would hate to sully your record."
He closed his wings around her, them, a small sliver of privacy. "We could bring this home?"
“Does the wine come in to-go cups?” Nesta asked curiously, glancing behind her through the crack between his wings, back at her only half-finished flight. Because yes, the wine was important, and it helped further teasing him.
But in the end, she both had plenty of wine at home and not a care in the world about places they were banned from. Nesta looked back up at him, eyes full of fake-innocence. In full knowledge of exactly what she was doing, her hand went down across one of his wing’s tendons. She couldn’t see the sofa behind him, so Cassian kept her gaze for now. “I don’t particularly care about my record, you know.”