Archangel's Heart (Guild Hunter #9)(17)


by Nalini Singh

The wind was quiet against her face tonight. It pushed Illium’s hair back gently from his face, those black strands dipped in blue that simply grew that way, to reveal the lines of a face that held a pure masculine beauty. But beautiful though he was, it hadn’t been his looks but the playful wickedness in Illium that had drawn Elena—that light in him, it was a bright, joyful candle against the dark.

Today, the light was snuffed out, his golden eyes strangely flat—as if he was holding himself in such fierce check that he’d buried the best part of himself. Elena couldn’t stand it. She took his hand, wove her fingers through his. He didn’t respond for a second, two . . . then, at last, his fingers curled around hers.

His skin grew warm in the minutes that followed, the horrible flatness retreating from his gaze.

“Do you know how badly hurt Aodhan was when we found him?” The words trembled. “His wings were all but rotted away, mere strings of tendons, and bone as soft as unfired clay all that remained. All his beautiful feathers gone, the webbing in shreds, his strength stolen and his body encrusted in dirt.”

Horror clawed Elena’s gut at the grim recitation. She knew something terrible had happened to Aodhan, bad enough that it had made him retreat from life for two hundred years. He’d imprisoned himself in the Refuge, had refused physical contact with anyone, hadn’t laughed, hadn’t interacted with the people who loved him.

It was Illium who’d reached him, Illium who was his best and closest friend.

“He was so hurt, Ellie,” Illium continued without waiting for an answer. “Not just on the outside.” He slapped his free hand against his heart. “This, the part that makes Aodhan who he is, it was so badly damaged that I thought I’d lost my friend forever.” Tears glittered in his eyes.

Glancing away, he stared at Manhattan with such harsh focus that she knew he was fighting those tears. His throat moved, his jaw a brutal line.

It hit her hard, because beauty and playfulness aside, Illium was one of the toughest fighters among Raphael’s people. He gave no quarter, was a warrior who’d fly headlong into an enemy squadron if a pitiless charge was what was required.

“Hey.” She flexed her fingers around his, tugging lightly until he turned to face her. “I can take it, Bluebell. Whatever you want to unload.” She smiled. “It can’t be any worse than Ransom’s love life before Nyree took pity on him.”

The bleak despair that gripped him seemed as if it would defeat the bonds of their friendship, but then his lips tugged up a little. Lifting their clasped hands, he pressed a kiss to her knuckles. And he was her Bluebell again, beautiful and wild and with power humming in his veins. So much power.

She sucked in a breath, suddenly realizing she could see every vein in Illium’s body—on his neck, down his arms, across his face. They glowed, as if his blood was molten gold. Her heart slammed into her ribcage, propelled by memories of the blazing light that had shoved out of him two years ago.

He’d almost died that day.

“Illium.”

“It’s nothing dangerous. Comes and goes.” A shrug. “There’s no attendant surge of power.” A sudden grin. “I’m just glow-in-the-dark for a minute or two.” The smile faded as quickly as it had come, along with the golden light in his veins.

Consciously taking a deep breath, then another, Elena lifted a hand to brush his hair off his forehead. Her heart was a racehorse in her chest, but this wasn’t about her. “Aodhan hurt you.”

“It’s more that he’s hurting himself.” He looked out at Manhattan again, but he was no longer holding his wings to his back with unforgiving tightness. Opening them a fraction, he allowed his feathers to slide against hers.

Many people would see that and think it an intimacy. It was. One between friends. Raphael called Illium her favorite. That was true, too. But he wasn’t her lover, would never hold that position—that part of Elena belonged always to her archangel. That was why she could hold his hand, why she could slide her wing over his, why he could kiss her knuckles.

“During his recovery,” Illium said into the quiet, “right at the start, when Keir was basically trying to put him back together, Aodhan didn’t speak, didn’t meet anyone’s eyes.” Such pain in his voice. “He’d just stare at whatever nightmares existed in his mind, a broken doll.”

The use of those words, Elena grasped, had been deliberate on Aodhan’s part.

“The person who described him that way was an angel named Remus.” Illium’s hand clenched around Elena’s with such strength that her bones hurt.

She said nothing, just listened.

“Remus was Keir’s assistant at the time.” He released a breath, eased his grip. “I’m sorry, Ellie.”

“I’m hunter-born, Bluebell. A little squeeze won’t do me any harm.”

Chest rising and falling in an uneven rhythm, Illium said, “Remus was a failed member of the Luminata.” He shifted to walk in the direction of her greenhouse, tugging her along with him.

She went, the glass structure a beacon of light on that side of the yard. It was the heat lamps within, the ones that nurtured her plans. “Did Remus get kicked out of Lumia?”

Illium’s satisfaction was in his voice when he answered. “I always thought he must’ve been kicked out, too, but Remus insisted he’d left because he realized he hadn’t finished living his life in the outside world yet. He implied that he’d be able to walk back into Lumia at any point in time.”

“This Remus guy, he’s not Keir’s assistant any longer.”

“No.” A word so razor-edged the air bled. “Remus had no business being in a healer’s employ.” Coming to a standstill beside the greenhouse, Illium looked back toward the open doors to the library. “He spent a lot of time with Aodhan while Aodhan was in the Medica. I was there, too, as were the others of us who were with Raphael at that time, as well as Raphael himself. My mother. His parents.”

He swallowed audibly. “I would’ve lived at the Medica had Keir allowed it—I couldn’t bear to have Aodhan out of my sight after what had happened.” Wings shifting restlessly, his fingers clenching down on hers again. “But every so often, Remus would tell us that as a healer’s apprentice, he could see Aodhan was growing strained at the constant companionship, that he needed a little time to find his own peace. We didn’t want to hurt him—we never wanted to hurt him—so we’d leave.”

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