Once the wrenching, gasping sounds came out of her, Nesta knew she could not stop.
She knelt on the shore of that mountain lake and let go entirely.
She allowed every horrible thought to hit her, wash through her. Let herself see Feyre’s pale, devastated face as Nesta had revealed the truth, as she’d let her own anger and pain ride her.
She could never outlive it, her guilt. There was no point in trying. She sobbed into the darkness of her hands.
And then the stones clicked, and a warm, steady presence appeared beside her. He didn’t touch her, but his voice was nearby as he said, “I’m here.”
She sobbed harder at that. She couldn’t stop. As if a dam had burst and only letting the water run its course, raging through her, would suffice.
“Nesta.” His fingers grazed her shoulder.
She couldn’t bear that touch. The kindness in it. “Please,” she said.
Her first word in five days. He stilled. “Please what?”
She leaned from him. “Don’t touch me. Don’t—don’t be kind to me.” The words were a sobbing, rippling jumble.
The list of reasons surged, fighting to get out, to voice themselves, and she let them decide. Let them flow through her, as she whispered, “I let him die.”
He went quiet.
Through her hands on her face, she continued to whisper. “He came to save me, and fought for me, and I let him die with hate in my heart. Hate for him. He died because I didn’t stop it.” Her voice broke, and she wept harder. “And I was so horrid to him, until the very end. I was so, so horrid to him all my life—and still he somehow loved me. I didn’t deserve it, but he did. And I let him die.”
She bowed over her knees, saying into her palms, “I can’t undo it. I can’t fix it. I can’t fix that he is dead, I can’t fix what I said to Feyre, I can’t fix any of the horrible things I’ve done. I can’t fix me.”
She sobbed so hard she thought her body would break with it. Wanted her body to come apart like a cracked egg, wanted what was left of her soul to drift away on the mountain wind.
She whispered, “I can’t bear it.”
Cassian said quietly, “It isn’t your fault.”
She shook her head, face still in her hands, as if it’d shield her from him, but he said, “Your father’s death is not your fault. I was there, Nesta. I looked for a way out of it, too. And there was nothing that could have been done.”
“I could have used my power, I could have tried—”
“Nesta.” Her name was a sigh—as if he were pained. Then his arms were around her, and she was being pulled into his lap. She didn’t fight it, not as he tucked her against his chest. Into his strength and warmth.
“I could have found a way. I should have found a way.” His hand began stroking her hair.
Her entire body, right down to her bones, trembled. “My father’s death, it’s—it’s the reason I can’t stand fires.”
His hand stilled, then resumed. “Why?”
“The logs …” She shuddered. “They crack. It sounds like breaking bone.”
“Like your father’s neck.”
“Yes,” she breathed. “That’s what I hear. I don’t know how I’ll ever not
hear his neck snapping when I’m near a fire. It’s … it’s torture.” He continued to stroke her head.
A wave of words pushed themselves out of her. “I should have found a way to save us before then. Save Elain and Feyre when we were poor. But I was so angry, and I wanted him to try, to fight for us, but he didn’t, and I would have let us all starve to prove what a wretch he was. It consumed me so much that … that I let Feyre go into that forest and told myself I didn’t care, that she was half-wild, and it didn’t matter, and yet …” She let out a wrenching cry. “I close my eyes and I see her that day she went out to hunt the first time. I see Elain going into the Cauldron. I see her taken by it during the war. I see my father dead. And now I will see Feyre’s face when I told her that the baby would kill her.” She shook and shook, her tears burning hot down her cheeks.
Cassian kept stroking her hair, her back, as he held her by the lake.
“I hate it,” she said. “Every part of me that … does these things. And yet I can’t stop it. I can’t let down that barrier, because to let it fall, to let everything in …” This was what would happen. This shrieking, weeping mess she’d become. “I can’t bear to be in my head. I can’t bear to hear and see everything, over and over. That is all I hear—the snapping of his neck. His last words to me. That he loved me.” She whispered, “I didn’t deserve that love. I deserve nothing.”
Cassian’s hands tightened on her, her own hands falling away as she buried her face against his jacket and wept into his chest.
He said after a moment, “I can tell you more about my mother, and how her death nearly destroyed me. I can tell you in detail about what I did afterward, and what that cost me. I can tell you about the decade it took me to work through it. I can tell you how many days and nights I suffered during the forty-nine years Amarantha held Rhys captive, the guilt tearing me apart that I wasn’t there to help him, that I couldn’t save him. I can tell you how I still look at him and know I’m not worthy of him, that I failed him when he needed me—that fact drags me from sleep sometimes. I can tell you I’ve killed so many people I’ve lost count, but I remember most of their faces. I can tell you how I hear Eris and Devlon and the others talk
and, deep down, I still believe that I am a worthless bastard brute. That it doesn’t matter how many Siphons I have or how many battles I’ve won, because I failed the two people dearest to me when it mattered the most.”
She couldn’t find the words to tell him that he was wrong. That he was good, and brave, and—
“But I’m not going to tell you all of that,” he said, pressing a kiss to the top of her head.
The wind seemed to pause, the sunlight on the lake brightening.
He said, “I am going to tell you that you will get through it. That you will face all of this, and you will get through it. That these tears are good, Nesta. These tears mean you care. I am going to tell you that it is not too late, not for any of it. And I can’t tell you when, or how, but it will get better. What you feel, this guilt and pain and self-loathing—you will get through it. But only if you are willing to fight. Only if you are willing to face it, and embrace it, and walk through it, to emerge on the other side of it. And maybe you will still feel that tinge of pain, but there is another side. A better side.”
She pulled back from his chest then. Found his gaze lined with silver. “I don’t know how to get there. I don’t think I’m capable of it.”
His eyes glimmered with pain for her. “You are. I’ve seen it—I’ve seen what you can do when you are willing to fight for the people you love. Why not apply that same bravery and loyalty to yourself? Don’t say you don’t deserve it.” He gripped her chin. “Everyone deserves happiness. The road there isn’t easy. It is long, and hard, and often traveled utterly blind. But you keep going.” He nodded to the mountains, the lake. “Because you know the destination will be worthwhile.”
She stared up at him, this male who had walked with her for five days in near-silence, waiting, she knew, for this moment.
She blurted, “All the things I’ve done before—”
“Leave them in the past. Apologize to who you feel the need to, but leave those things behind.”
“Forgiveness is not that easy.”
“Forgiveness is something we also grant ourselves. And I can talk to you until these mountains crumble around us, but if you don’t wish to be
forgiven, if you don’t want to stop feeling this way … it won’t happen.” He cupped her cheek, calluses scraping across her overheated skin. “You don’t need to become some impossible ideal. You don’t need to become sweet and simpering. You can give everyone that I Will Slay My Enemies look— which is my favorite look, by the way. You can keep that sharpness I like so much, that boldness and fearlessness. I don’t want you to ever lose those things, to cage yourself.”
“But I still don’t know how to fix myself.”
“There’s nothing broken to be fixed,” he said fiercely. “You are helping yourself. Healing the parts of you that hurt too much—and perhaps hurt others, too.”
Nesta knew he wouldn’t have ever said it, but she saw it in his gaze— that she had hurt him. Many times. She’d known she had, but to see it again in his face … She lifted her hand to his cheek and laid it there, too drained to care about the gentleness of the touch.
Cassian nuzzled into her hand, closing his eyes. “I’ll be with you every step of the way,” he whispered into her palm. “Just don’t lock me out. You want to walk in silence for a week, I’m fine with that. So long as you talk to me at the end of it.”
She stroked a thumb over his cheekbone, marveling at him—the words and his beauty. Some essential piece of herself clicked into place. Some piece that whispered, Try.
Cassian opened his eyes, and they were so lovely they nearly stole the breath from her. Nesta leaned forward until their brows touched. And despite all that brimmed in her heart, all that flowed through her body, sure and true, she merely whispered, “Thank you.”
The storm had broken, and it was not what Cassian had expected. He had expected rage capable of bringing down mountains. Not tears enough to fill this lake.
Every sob had broken his heart.
Every shake of her body as the words worked themselves out of her had torn him to shreds. Until he hadn’t been able to keep from wrapping himself
around her, comforting her.
She hadn’t heard wood cracking in a fire, but breaking bone. He should have known.
How many fires had Nesta flinched from, hearing not the wood but her father’s snapping neck? At last year’s Winter Solstice party, she’d been pale and withdrawn—far worse than usual. And they’d had a massive, crackling fire in that room with them. Had kept it burning hot and loud all night.
Every snap would have reminded her of her father. Each one would have been brutal. Unbearable. And when she’d suddenly rushed from the town house at the end of the party … Had it been to get away from them, or to get free of the sound? Possibly both, but … He wished she’d said something. He wished he’d at least known.
And fuck, how many fires had he built these last few days? That first night, she’d curled as far from the flame as she could get. Had slept with an arm over her head. Blocking her ears, Mother damn him. And at the blacksmith, when she’d requested to move to a cooler, quieter room—one without the crackle of the forge … It had taken more courage than he’d understood for her to ask to return to the workshop, to the flames, to hammer at those blades.
She’d been suffering, and he’d had no idea how much it consumed every facet of her life. He’d seen her self-loathing and anger—but hadn’t realized how much she had been aware of it. How much it had eaten her up. He couldn’t stomach it. To know she’d hurt this much, for so long.
Cassian held her on the shores of the lake until the sun set, until the moon rose, and they remained there, listening to each other breathe, as if the world had been flooded by her tears, as if they were both waiting to see what emerged once the floodwaters receded.
The lake gleamed like a silver mirror in the moonlight, so bright it could have been dusk.
His stomach grumbled with hunger, but as the moon drifted higher, he pressed a kiss to her head. “Get up.”
She stirred against him, but obeyed. He groaned, legs stiff from sitting for so long, and rose with her. Her arms wrapped around herself. As if she’d retreat behind that steel wall within her mind, her heart.
Cassian drew the Illyrian blade from down his back.
It gleamed with moonlight as he extended it to her hilt-first. “Take it.”
Blinking, eyes still puffy with tears, she did. The blade dipped as she wrapped her hands around it, as if she didn’t expect its weight after so long with the wooden practice swords.
Cassian stepped back. Then said, “Show me the eight-pointed star.”
She studied the blade, then swallowed. Her features were open, fearful but so trusting that he nearly went to his knees. He nodded toward the blade. “Show me, Nesta.”
Whatever she sought in his face, she found it. She widened her stance, bracing her feet on the stones. Cassian held his breath as she took up the first position.
Nesta lifted the sword and executed a perfect arcing slash. Her weight shifted to her legs just as she flipped the blade, leading with the hilt, and brought up her arm against an invisible blow. Another shift and the sword swept down, a brutal slash that would have sliced an opponent in half.
Each slice was perfect. Like that eight-pointed star was stamped on her very heart.
The sword was an extension of her arm, a part of her as much as her hair or breath. Every movement bloomed with purpose and precision. In the moonlight, before the silvered lake, she was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.
Nesta finished the eighth maneuver, and returned the sword to center. The light in her eyes shone brighter than the moon overhead.
Such light, and clarity, that he could only whisper, “Again.”
With a soft smile that Cassian had never seen before, standing on the moon-washed shores of the lake, Nesta began.