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Archangel's War(5)
Author: Nalini Singh

   Elena’s gasp was soft. “Archangel.”

   His head too heavy to lift, he brought the wing over her . . . and saw that it was pure white fire. A cauldron of white fire. An inferno without end.

   “That explains why you set your hair on fire—you’re going to be hell on the furniture.” She raised a hand without fear, this warrior consort of his. The fire clung to her when she retracted her hand, but it didn’t burn.

   No part of him would ever harm her.

   She laughed, playing the fire over her palm like a small pet. For a moment, she’d forgotten her own loss. “Those wings are seriously badass.” After returning the flame to his wing, as if returning a feather, she pushed against the arch of it. “I can feel muscle and tendon and bone. Do you think you’ll be able to turn the understructure to fire, too, when you want to? So there’s nothing physical to attack?”

   “We will find out.” He brushed her hair off her face. “Do you remember the dream?”

   “Yes. I remember everything.” She pressed a hand over her heart. “That was a weird-ass thing to do, Archangel.”

   Pressing his forehead to her own, he smiled. “What other woman can say her lover actually gave her his heart?”

   Her lips twitched, but the bleakness remained. “Do it,” she whispered. “Rip off the Band-Aid fast.”

   He lifted himself up slightly, then moved his hand off her cheek to run it down her spine. And froze. “I can feel something.” Shifting so he could look at her back, he was aware of her holding her breath. So was he.

   What he saw was unlike anything he knew. “It’s a slightly raised tattoo of wings.” Perfect in every intricate detail, down to the filaments on each feather. “With all your colors.” Rich black shading outward to indigo, deepest blue, and dawn, with primaries of a shimmering white gold.

   Elena’s breath hit his skin in a hot, jagged exhale. “Baby wings?” Hope was a song in her voice. “Like with Aodhan’s nephew?”

   Angelic babies were born more with an impression of where wings would grow than actual wings. “This isn’t the same,” he told her. “Those wings are transparent and clearly show folds where the wing will eventually spread out over the back as the baby develops. On a baby, you can’t see the full wing shape.”

   “I remember now. Like an origami puzzle, with multiple folded layers.”

   “Yes.” Elena’s by contrast . . . “The tattoo is of your full wings, just in a size proportional to the canvas of your back.”

   A small silence before Elena said, “Was it like this the first time? When I was Made?”

   And he realized that in all their time together, that was the one question she’d never asked him. Because her wings were a wonder she accepted with no need of further knowledge. “No,” he answered. “Your wings grew as an adult angel’s would after an amputation. Naked wings covered only by a fluff of baby feathers emerged slowly out of your back. Once the whole wing was there, the adult feathers began to grow outward from your back.” He ran his fingers over the graceful arch of one wing.

   A shudder rolled through her. “I can feel your touch and it’s almost like you’re stroking that sensitive part of my wing. Why, if my entire wing structure is gone?” It was a rough, angry whisper. “Why do I want to open and close them if they’re forever static? Tattooed wings can’t fly, can’t open, can’t shiver under your touch.”

   Lowering himself back down so he was facing her, he put his hand on her cheek again. “Wings with no substance can fit inside a chrysalis that is too small.” His fierce hunter had fought to regain all of herself. “You made the only choice you could.”

   She put her hand over his wrist, her grip unexpectedly strong. “Well, it sucks and I want to kick something, but right now, I’d probably break my foot trying.” The next sound from her throat was one of wordless rage.

   He couldn’t fix this for her, couldn’t explain a tattoo disparate from any he’d ever seen. Instead, he enfolded her taut-with-anger form in his arms, his warrior consort who had come back to him from the edge of the abyss—and who didn’t know the meaning of surrender. “We survived the Cascade’s attempts to part us,” he reminded her. “We’ll survive this, too.”

   Elena held on to her archangel as he held her, her hold ferocious in its possessiveness. No tears, she vowed on a wave of red-hot fury. The Cascade would get no more pain out of her. She might’ve lost the glorious wings of midnight and dawn that had been her own, but she’d come back to her archangel as herself—and he was whole, too, with no physical damage from the massive power release.

   Though, with an archangel, it wasn’t that simple.

   She tightened her grip.

   How long they held one another, she didn’t know. His wing was heavy on her despite its fiery appearance, and his chest warm, his smell him. Just Raphael. She inhaled it in like it was air and it settled into her cells. When she finally straightened out her body again, anchored by him, by who they were together, her eye fell on the Legion mark on his temple.

   The sight made her glance down, below her left breast, for the dark mirror. It was gone, her skin unmarked. She pushed at the glowing translucence of it and thin “cracks” of light spread out under her skin. It was oddly lovely. “Yep, not normal.”

   Raphael’s laugh was deep, a sound she felt in her bones. And his eyes . . . the color was a blue so pure it hurt—and in that blue was a love that marked her. “I believe that is an understatement, hbeebti.”

   At last, they shifted to their backs, with Elena lying on Raphael’s wing as she’d done so many times since they’d found one another. Flickers of white fire danced over her skin like fireflies and it made her smile. Her archangel had come out with his wings intact. Her own, she could bear losing—it hurt like a bitch, but she’d deal. For Raphael to lose his? No, it was an impossibility she refused to countenance.

   Above them swirled golden light shot with lightning. “That looks like your new Cascade-born power. It feels like it, too.” Portentous and cold and violent in a way that was without motive. Just power so strong it sought to take total control, reshape the holder in its image.

   “Why is it just hanging around?”

   Her archangel didn’t seem very interested in that particular oddness. He’d turned onto his side again and was playing with her hair; as she watched, he examined the tiny feathers on the ends of the strands with intense fascination. Her lips curved. She didn’t rush him and time moved slowly in their cocoon of energy.

   When Raphael did look up at last, he said, “I sent it into the earth. It must’ve been too—”

   “Raphael.” She slammed her palm against the dirt wall next to her. A wall that glowed with golden power, complete with hidden bolts of lightning. “Our people.” Her heart thundered—that huge heart that had somehow managed to fit inside her and felt fairly normal . . . except for the odd beat that was too big, too loud.

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