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Archangel's Shadows(Guild Hunter,book 7)(17) by Nalini Singh

16
 
Standing on the roof of the Legion high-rise, the snow having passed, Elena looked at the architect cum structural engineer who had the task of converting it to the Legion’s specifications. “Can you do something with the roof so we can insert a skylight?”
 
Twisting her lips, the stunning ebony-skinned vampire named Maeve glanced down at the flat surface. “I could, but if you’re wanting to maximize natural light, I say we take off the entire roof and replace it with glass.”
 
“Can we do that?” Adrenaline shot through Elena. “Structurally, I mean?”
 
“Don’t see why not.” Maeve’s accent was so modern Manhattan, her clothes so edgy—like the kaleidoscope of color that was the structured, asymmetric ankle-length coat she wore—no one who didn’t know would’ve guessed she’d been born on another continent over five hundred years ago.
 
The woman, with her high, slashing cheekbones and short crop of tight curls, had used the years to become multiqualified and was considered one of the best in her line of work. “Only thing is,” Maeve continued, “I’d have to work out the weight tolerance—Legion might not be able to gather on it in such large groups.”
 
Elena looked at the Primary, standing silent to her right. “Preference?”
 
“Glass.” The rim of blue around his irises appeared to burn in the icy winter light. “If we can gather in a place of earth, we do not need the roof.”
 
“So,” Elena said, “we make the entire penthouse a glass box.” With floor-to-ceiling windows designed to be opened so the Legion could fly in and out, though they’d have to figure out how to conserve heat in winter for the plants.
 
“No.”
 
Maeve blinked at the Primary’s interjection. “No?”
 
“Can you make the garden deeper?”
 
“You mean merge two or more floors?”
 
A curt nod.
 
“Yes,” the other woman said slowly. “But I think what’ll work best is if we don’t take out the entire floor between the two levels—instead, we can cut it out in parts.” She did a rough sketch on her tablet using a stylus. “See, like this?”
 
The sketch showed a hollowed-out interior with ledges coming out from the walls in what appeared to be a random formation over three floors, but Elena quickly realized the placement of those ledges meant light would be maximized, creating multiple areas for gardens, as well as landing sites for the Legion. “Brilliant.”
 
The Primary touched the sketch. “Yes. Can the whole building be thus?”
 
Maeve blew out a breath, her hands squeezing the tablet. “Wow. Okay, I’m going to have to do more research on the structural aspects of the building to answer that question.” She was making frantic notes as she spoke. “Top three floors, though, that’s a definite.”
 
Elena was wonderfully astonished at the idea of a high-rise turned into a giant greenhouse, its interior a branching tree through which a winged being could weave all the way to the ceiling. She crossed her fingers that Maeve would be able to come up with a solution.
 
“We might as well start on the top three floors, then,” she said, after a glance at the Primary to see if he agreed. “Maeve, I know plants, but the building’s going to be your ball game.”
 
“I’m on it.”
 
Leaving the other woman to talk to her team, Elena took the Primary to a gardening supplies warehouse, where she organized delivery of pots, soil, freestanding grow lights, and other items. Their next stop was a commercial greenhouse.
 
Two hours later, enough plants and supplies had been delivered that she put the Legion to work. It would take time for the modifications to the top floors to be completed; in the interim, she’d decided to transform the entire first floor into a place where plants could thrive and the Legion could rest.
 
Elena understood the need for a haven, a safe place.
 
With Maeve’s consent and advice, the winged fighters had already knocked down walls that weren’t load-bearing, opening up the space. They’d also ripped up the carpet and cleaned the floor so it was smooth. All of it since six that morning.
 
As she helped rig things up so this floor would have adequate heat and humidity, then showed the Legion fighters how to handle the more delicate plants, she began to feel her own body relax. Their pleasure in the earth was transcendent, the haunting peace of it wrapping her in its wings . . . until her skin rippled with a cold shiver, her heart punching into her rib cage.
 
She could hear them, the echo of whispers that together was a mind created of hundreds; it was a rushing, overwhelming sound inside her skull, like a wave crashing inside a cave. “Stop,” she gasped out.
 
Silence.
 
The Primary was in front of her seconds later. “The consort does not wish to join our conversation?”
 
That was when Elena understood the voices had been an invitation. “One at a time,” she said, not sure quite what she was doing but feeling an odd sense of . . . vulnerability around her. “I want to know you one at a time.”
 
A rustling consternation.
 
“We are one,” the Primary said. “We are the Legion.”
 
“This,” she said, brushing her hands over the miniature mandarin orange tree in front of her, “is one. The root systems, the trunk, the branches, the leaves, they all act together with one goal. Yet not one of the leaves is exactly the same. You can be one without being identical copies.”
 
Muted whispers, the Legion attempting to be quiet for her benefit. It cut off when the Primary looked around the room. Returning his gaze to Elena, he said, “We will consider the idea of being one without being one.”
 
•   •   •
 
Elena was pretty sure the Legion continued their whispering discussion long after she left late in the afternoon. It had been eerie to be in a silent room when she’d known a heated debate was going on between its inhabitants.
 
Having showered and changed at the Tower, she swept out under the rays of the setting sun, more than ready to go home, be with Raphael and their friends. She’d only been in the air a matter of seconds when she received a message from Demarco.
 
You owe me fifty bucks. Bill Smith was waiting patiently in line for his bus.
 
She couldn’t believe it; when they’d run into each other at their mutual favorite coffee place at dawn that morning, and he’d shared his plan for catching the vampire, she’d told him he was losing it. “Shows what I know,” she muttered and sent him a reply before sliding her phone away into a zipped pocket.
 
Archangel? she said, unsure if she’d reach him. He’d taken a specialist squadron out over the sea to practice maneuvers. Now, more than ever, the Tower’s defenses had to be airtight. New York couldn’t appear wounded prey to the hostile forces who watched. On the other hand, their people were tired. It was why Dmitri had staggered exercises so every fighter would have more days off than usual in rotation.
 
The wind swept into her mind, licked with rain and the endless sea. I’ll be home soon, hbeebti. Naasir has said he will behave if he arrives first.
 
Well, he has promised not to eat me, so that’s something.
 
Illium fell into flight with her as Raphael’s laughter lingered in her mind, while her Legion escort flew far enough overhead that it was unobtrusive. Angling her wings slightly so she could talk to the blue-winged angel beside her, the silver filaments in his feathers catching the fading light, she said, “Are you coming to dinner, too?”
 
It was odd. She’d initially invited Naasir, Janvier, and Ash. The small team had become a tight unit during the fighting and she knew Naasir hadn’t yet had a chance to catch up with Ash. All three had accepted the invitation, but the weird thing was, suddenly every member of the Seven who was in the vicinity had the night off to join them.
 
Illium’s golden eyes gleamed beneath the blue-tipped black of his eyelashes. “Oh, yes, I’m definitely coming to dinner.”
 
Elena wasn’t an idiot. “What are you expecting Naasir to do?”
 
Illium dived toward the water at breathtaking speed, came up at a steep angle. “Word is,” he said, “Naasir’s bringing you a present.”
 
That didn’t sound ominous . . . until she considered who they were talking about.
 
Illium shot up to the sun before she could question him about Naasir’s gift-giving proclivities.
 
Elena kept to a more lazy flight homeward. Montgomery had promised her double chocolate fudge cake, and, whatever Naasir’s present, it couldn’t hold a candle to the butler’s double chocolate fudge cake—Montgomery made it himself from scratch, guarded the recipe like a dragon with his treasure.
 
When her phone rang, she answered it with a smile. “I was waiting to hear from you,” she said to her younger sister Eve. “How did the exam go?”
 
“It wasn’t as hard as my friends and I thought it would be,” Eve said, voice ebullient, and the two of them fell into an easy conversation.
 
Landing on the snow-covered lawn of her and Raphael’s Enclave home not long after she and Eve said good-bye, she watched Illium come down fast and neat. Aodhan dropped out of the sky at a slower pace, the early evening light fracturing off him in dazzling sparks.
 
“How’s the wing feel?” she asked, having noticed the last-minute correction he’d made to keep from toppling sideways.
 
“Significant weakness, but I must continue to exercise it at this stage of the healing process.” He stretched both wings out to their full breadth, folded them back in again.
 
Never, she thought, would she get used to the impossibility of Aodhan, to the feathers and hair that seemed coated with crushed diamonds that refracted light in endless shards. “Just make sure you don’t push it too far.” Hunters and Tower personnel, they both chafed at being grounded. Aodhan hadn’t mentioned pain, but she knew it had to be bad.
 
The immortal ability to survive brutal wounds came at an agonizing price.
 
“Don’t worry, Ellie.” Illium bumped a fist gently off Aodhan’s jaw, his skin warm gold against the sunshine-touched alabaster of Aodhan’s. “I sicced Keir on him two days ago when he refused to listen to reason. You haven’t seen a set-down until you’ve seen Keir delivering it.” A wince. “Poor Sparkle.”
 
Aodhan did something she didn’t quite catch, and suddenly, Illium was on the ground, flat on his back in the snow. The shocked look on his face was almost as good as Aodhan’s studiously blank one. “Shall we go inside, Elena?”
 
“How about helping me up first?” Illium scowled and held up a hand. “Now my back’s all wet.”
 
Aodhan hauled him up with his good arm. “Poor Bluebell.”
 
Elena’s lips twitched. It was starting to become clear why Aodhan and Illium had become friends. Aodhan might be quiet, but he could hold his own against the blue-winged angel—who remained the only person Aodhan could bear to have touch him. Elena didn’t know what had traumatized Aodhan to that visceral depth, but she knew the silent battle he fought each and every day.
 
“Your scars exist, but it’s your courage that defines you.”
 
She’d said that to him a week past, received a piercing glance in return from the haunting fracture of his gaze. “I’m afraid, every instant, that the darkness will suck me back under.”
 
“But you keep going, Aodhan. Any fool can jump unawares into danger—you know exactly the risk you’re taking, and yet here you are.”
 
In front of her, he brushed the snow off Illium’s feathers and said, “Next time you call me Sparkle, I’m dumping you into the Hudson.”
 
“I can swim.”
 
“Come on,” Elena said with a grin. “Montgomery will be waiting.”
 
The three of them had just taken the first steps toward the house when there was a wash of wind. Jason and Mahiya landed to Illium’s right a second later. The spymaster’s black wings were dramatic against the white of the snow, his facial tattoo vivid even in the gray light, but it was Mahiya’s spectacular wings that caught the eye. Jewel green and wild blue with strokes of black, the pattern was akin to a peacock’s spray.
 
“Elena,” Mahiya said with the gentle smile that held an inner glow. “Thank you for having us to dinner on such short notice. I’m afraid we couldn’t resist the temptation.”
 
“I’m starting to worry about Naasir’s idea of a gift.”
 
Jason stirred. “He once brought an angel a bucket of piranhas and told the angel to stick his hand inside to retrieve his gift.”
 
“But he didn’t like the angel,” Illium put in, “so you should be safe. I don’t know why the angel in question whined to everyone about it—he only lost a few fingers.”
 
“At least there is nowhere for Naasir to find a live wild boar here.” That came from Aodhan, Illium nodding sagely beside him. “In his defense, he had been told to bring meat to the fire.”
 
“Gee, don’t try to reassure me all at once.” Leading them inside, she discovered Montgomery had set up a table in the formal dining room.
 
Elena and Raphael didn’t normally use this room for anything but meetings with archangels or other highly ranked individuals, it was so grand. However, it took on a different air with so many of the Seven in attendance. They sprawled over the elegant furniture, dug into Montgomery’s food, spoke with the ease of men who’d known one another for centuries.
 
That feeling only intensified when Dmitri drove his gleaming Ferrari to the front door, Honor in the passenger seat. Raphael returned home at almost the same instant, and the buzz of conversation and laughter grew to fill the house. Fifteen minutes into it and Illium had coaxed a blushing Mahiya into dancing with him in the center of the room, while Aodhan and Dmitri played a chess grudge match using a priceless hand-carved set placed on an antique parquetry table.
 
Honor, on the other hand, had walked over to examine the magnificent painting of the Refuge on the far wall, and Jason stood talking to Raphael as they watched Dmitri and Aodhan attempt to outthink one another.
 
The only ones missing were the people she’d originally invited. “Did anyone ask Naasir if he needed a ride?” Janvier and Ash she wasn’t worried about, since both were locals—and they were on a case, the chilling details of which Raphael had shared with her.
 
Goddamn Lijuan. Elena was ready for the crazy archangel to die and stay dead.
 
“Naasir said he was coming with Janvier and his hunter.” Illium twirled Mahiya back into him on those words, the gold-edged orange of the calf-length tunic she wore over black cotton leggings flaring out in a rippling circle.
 
The throaty purr of a powerful engine sounded just then, and Elena turned to the large windows that overlooked the drive to see a gleaming black panther of a car prowl to a stop next to Dmitri’s Ferrari. “Wow.”
 
As she watched, the driver’s-side door was pushed up at the same time as the passenger door. Ash stepped out one side, Janvier the other . . . and that was when she realized Naasir was crouched on top of the car.