Illium and Aodhan. Aodhan and Illium. For centuries they’ve been inseparable: the best of friends, closer than brothers, companions of the heart. But that was before—before darkness befell Aodhan and shattered him, body, mind, and soul. Now, at long last, Aodhan is healing, but his new-found strength and independence may come at a devastating cost—his relationship with Illium.
As they serve side by side in China, a territory yet marked by the evil of its former archangel, the secret it holds nightmarish beyond imagining, things come to an explosive decision point. Illium and Aodhan must either walk away from the relationship that has defined them—or step forward into a future that promises a bond infinitely precious in the life of an immortal…but that demands a terrifying vulnerability from two badly bruised hearts.
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"Look, Illium." Sharine, the Hummingbird, squeezed her toddler son's hand.
He was so very small, his wings no more than suggestions of what they would one day become, but he insisted on walking. Aegaeon was proud of him for his stubborn determination, boasted that Illium had inherited his will.
What Sharine knew was that her son had more strength in his small body than she could've ever imagined when she cradled his infant form. He'd been such a fragile, tiny baby that the healer had worried, and Aegaeon had scowled. "How can I have fathered such a runt?" he'd said, offense in every line of his large and muscular body. "I am an archangel!"
Aegaeon had long forgotten his initial reaction, the memory overridden by the relentless drive of this small boy who was the center of Sharine's world.
"Look over there." She pointed out the similarly-sized child who played in a patch of wildflowers on the cold mountain plateau on which they walked.
Sharine's parents hadn't often allowed her such unstructured play, wanting her to be controlled and disciplined . . . and quiet, always quiet, but she allowed her son all the play he wanted, no matter how dirty it made him or how out of control it became. Yesterday, she'd discovered him climbing the kitchen pantry so he could get at the sweets she'd hidden at the very top. He'd been naked, a wild creature at home in his skin.
And such mischief he'd had in his eyes when she caught him with one pudgy hand clasped around a sweet far too big for his little body. He'd giggled when she took hold of him with a stern admonishment about the rules. Oh, but then she'd laughed, too, because his laughter was a thing infectious.
Sharine knew that was a bad way to teach a child not to be naughty. Aegaeon, for one, wasn't pleased by her gentleness with their son. Sharine, however, had no fears about who Illium would one day become. Her boy had a good heart. He'd never be cruel. If he ended up a little spoiled, well, that wasn't a bad thing, was it? Not if it was tempered by a kind heart and a generous spirit.
Now, he babbled up at her, the dark gold of his eyes shining.
Old eyes he had, her baby. Perhaps because she was such an old angel. She worried about that at times, that she was the wrong kind of mother for a bright, lively boy-too old and bruised and a little broken. But he laughed often, her Illium, so she must be doing something right.
"Shall we go say hello?" She didn't recognize the extremely fair-haired angel with wings of palest, palest gold who watched over the other little boy; she might be someone who worked often outside the Refuge. Or it might be that she and the boy lived on the far side of the Refuge and Sharine's path had just never crossed with theirs. Sharine knew she could be insular, content with a small circle of those she loved.
Illium tugged at her hand, trying to run on his wobbly little legs.
Laughing, she speeded up, and soon, wildflowers brushed their legs. Sharine inhaled sharply at her first true look at the unknown child. He seemed a touch younger than Illium, and was a dazzlingly bright creature, as if every part of him had been designed to capture, then fracture light. His hair was delicate strands of diamonds, every filament of his nascent feathers akin to glass that had been formed into something soft and welcoming that drew light.
And his gaze, when he looked up from his seated position among the riot of indigo and pink, yellow and white blooms, was a fracture of blue and green that erupted outward from jet-black irises. But he wasn't looking at Sharine. He was staring at Illium, a tiny flower held in a soft baby hand.
A moment later, he smiled, this child of light, and held out the flower to Illium.
Sharine's boy smiled back, babbled happily, and took the flower before plopping down across from the other child. Sharine looked from the child of light to the green-eyed woman behind him, and said, "I think, our children will be friends."
A month before today
Elena slid her throwing blade into a forearm sheath as she strode onto the Tower roof on the hunt for her archangel. And there he was, silhouetted against the lush red-orange glow of the early evening sunlight, the golden filaments in the white of his feathers ablaze.
He turned toward her the instant she stepped out onto the rooftop, and though they had been lovers through a Cascade of change, their lives entwined since they met, the incandescent blue of his eyes stole her breath.
Dangerous and beautiful, the Archangel of New York owned her heart.
For an instant, she thought the Legion mark on his temple glittered, but then it was gone, nothing but an illusion caused by the setting sun. Her chest ached. She couldn't stop looking for that spark of life, couldn't stop hoping that the strange, ancient warriors who'd sacrificed their lives to protect the world from a reign of death would one day return.
Taking the hand that Raphael held out, she joined him on the edge of the highest rooftop in Manhattan, both of them looking out at their city. Almost a year after the war and it was still being rebuilt, construction equipment a familiar sight and cranes multiplying like overly fertile birds, while four city blocks near the East River remained black and barren despite their best efforts-but New York's heart had rebounded, unbroken. It beat with the dogged will of its people, mortal and immortal, human, vampire, and angel.
As in front of them thrived the verdant green of the Legion building. "I kept my promise," she said, a knot in her throat.
"You did, hbeebti." A kiss pressed to the top of her head. "You have kept their home alive."
Neither one of them spoke aloud the fear that haunted Elena: that the Legion's green home would remain forever empty, an echoing cavern devoid of the beautifully eerie presence of the seven hundred and seventy-seven beings who'd called it home.
The Legion, however, weren't the only ones Elena missed with feral desperation. "Tell me Aodhan will be coming home soon." He'd stood by Suyin's side as her second ever since her sudden ascension to an archangel on the far edge of the war.
Elena liked Suyin and didn't envy her the job she'd taken on as Archangel of China, but she wanted Aodhan home, surrounded by those who loved him. Aodhan trusted so few people, leaned on an even smaller number-and that trust had been years in the making.
She hated the idea of him being so far from all of that small group.
"Not just yet," Raphael said, his wing spreading in a caress behind her as the blazing rays of the sun set fire to the midnight strands of his hair. "That is why I'm out here. I've just had a meeting with Jason."
Elena hadn't realized the spymaster had returned from his latest trip. Hardly a surprise. The black-winged angel took pride slipping in and out of places. "He was in China?"
"He dropped by." A faint smile in Raphael's tone. "As Jason is wont to do now that one of our own calls it home."
"Did he speak to Aodhan?" Shifting so she could see Raphael's face, the sheer masculine beauty of him still a punch to the gut every single time, Elena resettled her own restless wings.
"Yes. He is strong, Aodhan, stronger than any of us realized. He does his duty."
"That tells me exactly nothing," Elena muttered with a scowl. "Is he okay? Homesick?"
"Jason found it difficult to judge-the two are blood-loyal to one another, but they don't have the kind of relationship where such intimacies are discussed."
Placing both hands on her hips, over the supple and well-fitted leather of her hunt-suitable pants, Elena snorted. "You mean they'd both rather slit their own throats than acknowledge they have the dreaded fee-fees?" Jason was the quietest and most reserved of the Seven, Aodhan not much better.
Raphael laughed, the sound a crash of joy in her veins. "Mahiya would disagree with that opinion."
"We all know she's the sole exception to the rule when it comes to Jason." Elena was glad for the spymaster that he'd found a lover he trusted with all of himself. Aodhan, however . . . "Sparkle is far from home, with none of his people around him."
"Yes, that concerns me, too." Raphael paused before adding, "I think it has been good for him to be independent from all of us this past year. I also believe it's time to remind him of home-I would not have him make the choice to come in a vacuum."
Elena didn't push for the why behind the first part of Raphael's statement; she knew Aodhan's past held a terrible darkness. Enough that he'd retreated from the world for a long, painful time.
He was so hurt, Ellie . . . the part that makes Aodhan who he is, it was so badly damaged that I thought I'd lost my friend forever.
Words Illium had spoken to her once, a wrenching agony to him.
The memory had helped her understand why Raphael had allowed it when Aodhan volunteered to stand as Suyin's second-so that Aodhan, in his full power now, no longer wounded or secluded, would have options, and wouldn't stay loyal to Raphael only because that was all he'd ever known.
Her archangel loved Aodhan enough to set him free.
"A choice?" Elena said, her stomach in knots. "So Suyin's done it? Asked him to stay on permanently as her second?" All of them had expected it-Aodhan was too strong, too intelligent, and too good at the tasks required of a senior member of an archangel's court for it to be otherwise.
To her surprise, Raphael shook his head. "She spoke to me of her desire to do so mere moments before Jason's arrival. She didn't wish to make Aodhan a formal offer behind my back."
"Yeah, she's not sneaky." It was part of why Elena liked her-and why Aodhan did, too. He'd said as much to Elena when they'd spoken prior to his move to China. "She has honor, Ellie, a bone-deep well of it. There are no masks with Suyin, no lies. If anything, she's too tied to behaving with integrity in all things. I can work with such an archangel."
Elena had no need to ask Raphael what answer he'd given Suyin-he'd never hold Aodhan back from taking the prestigious position, even if it broke his archangel's heart. "This is his time," she agreed, her voice rough. "And being second, new court or not . . . even I know it's a big fucking deal."
"But we're going to fight for him, right?" Elena said, while the last rays of the sun played on the side of her face, a touch of warmth on this cold day as the world slid from fall into winter.
"That would be a possessive action, and I have never been known to be such."
She grinned. "Of course not." Leaping into his arms, she pressed her lips to his as he wrapped her up in his wings. The passion between them was a thing of wildfire heat that made the world shimmer, a desert mirage of need and love and devotion.
"When are we going to fetch him home?" she demanded. "New York doesn't feel the same without him."
Raphael shook his head, no more humor to him, his face an unearthly creation of stark lines and cold power. "I don't think the time is right for him to make such a momentous move, nor that Suyin is the right archangel for him, but he must make the choice, Elena-mine. Freedom is the one thing I will never take from Aodhan."
Seeing the echoes of old rage in his eyes, hearing it in his tone-so frigid, the anger an old, old one-Elena stroked his nape, his hair heavy black silk against her fingertips. "Part of me wants to tell him to take the promotion and not look back." He was magnificent, their Aodhan, more than worthy of the position he'd been offered. "The rest of me wants to drag him home." A kiss pressed to Raphael's lips. "I'll keep it under control, though. I won't be anything but supportive."
"As will I," Raphael said. "But I also plan to fight dirty." A dangerous spark in the blue. "I have told Suyin I am sending her more help. I am a kind fellow archangel."
Elena whooped, her grin huge. "You're sending Illium."
"Of course I'm sending, Illium, hbeebti. Now, we watch, and we wait."
Life changes us. To wish otherwise is pointless.
-Nimra, Angel of New Orleans
Aodhan was tired.
Not the tired of the body. He was a powerful angel, and tonight, he flew patrol over Suyin's interim stronghold without any real drain on his resources. Young in the grand scheme of things at just over five centuries of age, but with veins bursting with an energy that made him suitable to be second to an archangel.
It was why Raphael had accepted his offer to assist Suyin as her temporary second.
It was why, three weeks earlier, Suyin had extended him a formal offer to make the position permanent.
Aodhan's first call had been to Raphael. His sire had told Aodhan that he wouldn't stand in his way should Aodhan wish to take up the position. "You are the only one who can make that call," Raphael had said. "Whatever you decide, know that you will forever be part of my Seven."
Aodhan's immediate instinct had been to turn down the position. "It is Raphael I call sire-and I do so of my own free will," he'd said to Suyin at the time. "It is a bond I will not break."
"You will never be second to Raphael," Suyin had said in her gentle way, her night-dark eyes vivid against the white foil of her skin and hair. "Dmitri has been too long in that position and is too good at what he does."
"I do not aspire to be his second." Aodhan already had another, equally critical position-to be one of Raphael's Seven was to be part of a group unlike any in all of angelkind.
Suyin had smiled, the sadness that lingered always in her easing for a fraction of a second. "You have honored me with your fidelity and courage, given me counsel wise and patient, and so I ask you to take more time, consider my offer in more than the moment."