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Archangel's Shadows(Guild Hunter,book 7)(6) by Nalini Singh

Elena stretched her shoulders as she sat on the rooftop of the building given over to the Legion, her legs hanging over the side and her wings resting against the rough concrete surface. Her position gave her a direct view of the Tower, its windows blazing with the reflected glory of what promised to be a dazzling sunset.
Beside her crouched the Primary, in the Legion’s distinctive gargoyle-like resting pose. Wings arched high and one arm braced on his knee, he was dressed in what had been unrelieved black, but was now dusty, the dark of his hair the same. He still wasn’t “human” in any sense, but he no longer made the hairs rise on the back of her neck.
Most of the time.
“You are tired.”
Elena reached up to fix her ponytail, her hair damp from the quick shower she’d grabbed, else she’d be as covered in dust and grit as the Primary. “Busy day.” She’d spent it ferrying materials to facilitate the repair of one of the outlying high-rises that had been damaged during the battle. “How are the modifications to this building going?”
“It was not built for winged residents.”
The eerie, risen-from-the-depths male was getting verbose on her, she thought dryly. “Yes, there’s a lot of work to be done.” Railingless balconies had to be added, internal walls knocked down, windows turned into doors—what was safe and comfortable for mortals and vampires was annoying and stifling for winged beings.
The overhaul would take time, but a technical assessment by a specialist team had shown it would still be faster and more efficient to modify an existing building to the Legion’s requirements than to build a new one from the ground up.
“Are your people handling it all right for now?” One thing the Primary had told them was that while the Legion did not need sleep, his men didn’t do well cut off from one another so soon after their rising.
“Yes. We gather on the roof.”
Elena knew that. The first night she’d looked across from the Tower at midnight and seen their crouched forms, those hairs on the back of her neck had stood straight up. She wondered if the Legion had any idea how seriously other they could sometimes be. “If the snow’s too cold, we can organize—”
“The roof is acceptable.”
“Do you miss the sea?”
A long pause, the answer halting, as if she had asked him a question he hadn’t considered until that instant. “Yes . . . there was peace . . . and wonder . . . more than mortal or immortal eyes . . . ever see.”
Elena could do nothing but nod; she’d had but a glimpse of the Legion’s domain, and it had been of haunting beauty in the endless dark. “I had another home, too, once,” she told him, pointing past the Tower. “An apartment in that building with the serrated roof.”
The Primary’s response appeared a non sequitur, but she could almost see how he’d worked his way to it. “You are not mortal and yet you are.”
“I guess that describes me pretty well.” Angling her face to the caressing wind, she drew in the myriad scents of her city. A city made of spirit and grit and sheer bloody-mindedness.
Just like its people.
And then the fresh kiss of the rain, the crash of the sea was in her mind, Raphael’s wings magnificent in flight as he took off from the Tower balcony where he’d been speaking with Dmitri and Jason. Breath in her throat at the power and skill of his flight, Elena didn’t move. Five seconds later, he brought himself to a hover a few feet from her, making the maneuver look effortless when Elena knew from experience that holding a hover took brutal muscle control.
Dressed in sleeveless combat leathers similar to the Primary’s, though his were a deep brown, he looked to the leader of the Legion. “My second wishes to speak to you.” A ray of the setting sun struck the violent wildfire blue of the complex and extraordinary mark that ran from his right temple to the top of his cheekbone.
A stylized dragon, that was what Elena’s mind had said of the mark the first time she’d seen it as a whole, but the truth was that it was difficult to clearly describe. The impact was visceral, as if the jagged lines held an impossible power.
“Sire.” The Primary took off in silence.
Elena shivered. “I can’t get used to the fact that their wings don’t rustle.” The Legion had wings more comparable to bats’ than angelkind’s, strong and webbed and frighteningly quiet.
“They are built for stealth,” Raphael answered, the shattering hue of his eyes focused on her alone, the blue so pure it almost hurt. Homeward, hbeebti?
Everything in her resonated at the incredible power of that question, of the foundation that lay beneath it. Home was a truth for them both now. “Yes, unless the drug situation you mentioned means we have to stay at the Tower.” She didn’t like the sound of this Umber stuff.
“Dmitri has the matter in hand, and Illium will take the night watch over the Tower, with Aodhan for company.” A glint of laughter in his eyes, her archangel who was no longer the glacial, inhuman being who’d made her close her hand over a blade, her blood dripping hot and red to the Tower roof. “Naasir is to arrive this eve.”
Elena scowled. Raphael continued to refuse to tell her the truth about Naasir, the vampire who was unlike any other vampire she’d ever met. “Revenge will be mine,” she threatened. “I’d sleep with one eye open if I were you.”
The covetous wind pushed strands of the obsidian silk that was his hair across his cheek. “I remind you of your own conclusion that our butler would not be impressed with blood-drenched sheets.”
His solemn words startled her into a grin. “I’m surprised Naasir was able to get back here so soon.” The vampire had returned to Amanat, the territory held by Raphael’s mother, Caliane, just over two and a half weeks past. “Don’t we need him to keep an eye across the water at Lijuan’s territory?” Jason went in and out, but the spymaster couldn’t always be in one place.
“Venom has taken Naasir’s place temporarily.” This time, the amusement that shaped Raphael’s lips was acute. “My mother called to ask what else I have in my menagerie.”
Elena snorted, in no doubt of Caliane’s acerbic tone. “Can you blame her? First you send her a tiger creature who eats people he doesn’t like, and then a vampire with the eyes and fangs of a viper.” She held up a finger. “Oh, and let’s not forget the mortal you keep as a pet.”
“My mother does not consider you my pet, Elena. She is very kind to pets.”
“Oh, ouch!”
Amusement fading, Raphael closed the distance between them to cup her jaw. “You were in the infirmary after you bathed.”
“Yes.” It had become habit to drop in a couple of times a day. And if it continued to terrify her to build bonds with so many men and women who could die in the battles to come, each death cutting away another piece of her heart, she was taking it one day, one friendship, at a time.
“Mood is upbeat,” she told Raphael after wrapping her arms around his neck, “especially since Galen has given the order that anyone remotely ambulatory is to be up and active or else.” Her lips curved. “I heard him cursed in at least eight different languages, threatened with murder and other more creative forms of revenge by a number of very sweaty angels and vampires.” All of whom had been injured either in the Falling or in the fight against Lijuan. “My personal favorite had to do with marmalade, spiders, rope bondage, and a giant vat.”
“Then it is as well my weapons-master is in the Refuge.”
“As if any of that would faze Galen. He’d probably eat the spiders and tear the ropes apart with his bare hands.” The angel, built like a tank, was a force of nature. “But beneath the complaining, all I saw was relief. The ones who’re up are happy to be worked so hard, treated like the warriors they are, and the ones who aren’t yet mobile have both a source of amusement and a goal.”
Raphael slid his arms around her waist and pulled her off her perch as he turned at an impossible angle, his wing arching across her vision before he brought them to a vertical hover. “So, tonight,” he said, his breath a kiss against her lips, “our people are safe, the city is under watch, and I can spend the night with my consort.”
Stealing a kiss from the archangel who was her own personal and very private drug, Elena said, “Now,” and he released her.
She spread her wings, swept out into the cold breeze, her joy in flight a living thing inside her. The sky was a brilliant show of scarlet and orange now, the snowy sprawl of Central Park ablaze and the skyscrapers glowing like faceted gemstones. In contrast to the wild color of the sky, the air was crystalline, frosty with cold. Her lungs expanded in pure physical pleasure. Then she glanced to the left and felt her forehead wrinkle.
Raphael had dipped lower than her, and the white fire that had become more and more apparent to her licked sunset-kissed flames over his feathers. You’re burning again, and don’t tell me it’s an illusion.
Banking right, Raphael soared up, then swept back down beside her. It makes no rational sense for my wings to become aflame—what use is an archangel who cannot fly?
Are you having any difficulty at the moment?
No. A short pause. In point of fact, I’m cutting through the wind more smoothly than usual.
Given that Raphael’s usual skills were phenomenal, that was a serious asset. The edge of your wing is totally engulfed in white fire all the way up to your secondary coverts, she told him. Come closer and under me so I can touch your wing. Elena was getting better at flight with every day that passed, but that kind of a fine maneuver was currently beyond her.
Raphael shifted into the position she’d requested, part of his wing under her hand. Reaching out, she touched her fingers to the white fire. I can feel your feathers beneath the fire. Silky and strong and as they’d always been. But the flame is playing over my fingers. It’s cool to the touch and it feels like you. Impossible as it was to explain, she could feel the rain and the wind against her fingertips, sense the crashing sea.
Raphael swept up to fly beside her. Once again we have company.
Damn it. I wish they’d wear bells or something. She’d totally missed the Legion fighters who’d come alongside them, both of them dressed in basic black combat leathers, no sleeves.
When she glanced at the one to her left, it was to find him staring at her.
Black haired and golden skinned, he had pale, pale eyes ringed in a pure blue that echoed Raphael’s, his wings a beaten gold where an angel’s largest flight feathers would be. In contrast, where the Legion fighter’s wings grew out of his back, the leathery texture was a black identical to the black in Elena’s wings, the color bleeding into a midnight blue that merged with the gold.
It was the same exact coloring as the Primary had, the Legion all minted on the same press, but she knew this wasn’t the Primary. While the leader of the Legion gave off a sense of terrible age, of infinite memory, this fighter appeared oddly young to Elena’s senses. As if he’d been barely formed before their eons-long Sleep in the deep.
Raising her hand, she waved, just to see what he would do. Only the Primary had spoken to Elena and Raphael thus far. Interaction such as she’d had with him on the rooftop that day was even rarer. “Hello!” she called out in concert with her wave.
The Legion fighter tilted his head to the side like a curious bird and swung closer. Then he raised his hand and echoed Elena’s move. Delighted, she laughed and waved back. His lips moved, as if he were trying to figure out how to laugh or smile. Though he gave up the attempt soon afterward, he stayed by her side across the Hudson.
Do you wish me to command them to stop the escort?
Elena shook her head at Raphael’s question. They seem to like doing it for some reason and it’s harmless enough. The escort home—whether to the Enclave or to the Tower—had begun quietly, soon after the initial postbattle repairs were complete, and was now a ritual. Unless you’re planning to sweep me up into a dance . . .
Are you agreeing to be na**d above Manhattan?
Not this century. Skin heating at even the idea of it, though not all of that heat was mortification, she swept down to the river. The Legion fighter dropped with her and skimmed over the rippling water at her side, a puzzled expression on his face. I think he’s trying to figure out why I’d want to do this.
I do not think the Legion yet understands joy. Raphael winged down to join her before the two of them soared back up almost vertically to reach the top of the cliff beyond which sat their home. Elena’s muscles strained at the ascent but she was exhilarated at completing it without faltering.
“Yes!” She pumped her arm up and down as she joined Raphael on the lawn.
The Legion fighter landed beside her, while his partner came down next to Raphael. Turning to her archangel, she said, “How was my form?” It was a serious question.
“You’re listing slightly to the left.”
“I had that feeling. I can’t quite get the balance right.” Frowning, she settled her wings and looked to the Legion fighter who’d waved at her. “Any tips?”
“You are accustomed to carrying a crossbow on the right side of your body, and you tilt to balance yourself out even when you don’t have it strapped on.”
Elena stared. Did I just imagine that or did he speak?
He spoke. Raphael shifted his attention to the fighter. “Your insight is acute.” Turning to Elena when the fighter inclined his head toward him, in the way the Legion had of doing with Raphael, he said, “You don’t need to fix the listing. Learn to be aware of it and conscious of how it affects your balance when you don’t have the crossbow.”
Elena nodded, thanked the Legion fighter, then said, “Want to come for a walk?” to him and his partner both. “I’m heading to the greenhouse.”
Guild Hunter, what are you doing?
Trying to humanize them, so to speak. She couldn’t keep being disturbed by a force that belonged so deeply to her and Raphael that the knowledge was a hum in her bones. Wouldn’t you need a few pointers if you’d been buried at the bottom of the ocean for millennia?
“I will tell Montgomery to send refreshments to you.”
When Elena swiveled on her heel to walk toward the greenhouse, both Legion fighters fell in with her. Hah, she said to Raphael, bet you didn’t think they’d accept my invitation.
You would win that bet.
Blowing him a kiss over her shoulder, she carried on to the greenhouse. She usually took off most of her weapons once inside the warm, humid haven, though she kept them within easy reach, but today she didn’t unstrap a single knife. It was one thing to try to get to know them, another to blindly trust a millennia-old force that had come out of nowhere, hum in the bones or not.
She was hyperconscious of the fighters standing silently on either side of the doorway while she checked her plants. When Montgomery, dressed as per usual in an elegant black suit, his shirt white, arrived with a tray of coffee and small, delicious things, she said, “Have I told you how much I love you, Montgomery?”
“Not today, my lady.”
Elena winced inwardly. The butler had become used to calling her “Guild Hunter,” and then the battle had happened and he’d reverted. “What did you bring?” she asked, knowing Montgomery would’ve already noted his mistake.
“Éclairs made fresh by Sivya, blueberry muffins, and fruit.” Pouring the coffee into a mug for her and adding two sugars, he placed it on her bench. “Would the gentlemen like a drink?”
Elena looked to the fighters, held up her mug in a silent question.
One of them finally spoke. “We do not require fuel.”
“Then I will leave you to your work, Guild Hunter.”
Figuring her two guests might have hit their limit when it came to new experiences, she returned to her plants . . . and became aware they’d closed the distance to her in deadly silence.