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Chapter no 54

House of Earth and Blood

Hunt took a back entrance into the tower, careful to avoid any area that Sandriel might be frequenting. Isaiah hadn’t picked up, and he knew better than to keep calling until he did.

Micah was staring out the window when he arrived, his power already a brewing storm in the room. “Why,” the Archangel asked, “are you running Fae tests on old evidence down at the lab?”

“We have good reason to think the demon we identified isn’t the one behind Danika Fendyr’s death. If we can find what actually did kill her, it might lead us to whoever summoned it.”

“The Summit is in two weeks.”

“I know. We’re working as hard as we can.”

“Are you? Drinking at a whiskey bar with Bryce Quinlan counts as working?”

Asshole. “We’re on it. Don’t worry.”

“Sabine Fendyr called my office, you know. To rip my head off about being a suspect.” There was nothing humane behind those eyes. Only cold predator.

“It was a mistake, and we’ll own up to that, but we had sufficient cause to believe—”

“Get. The. Job. Done.” Hunt gritted out, “We will.”

Micah surveyed him coolly. Then he said, “Sandriel has been asking about you—about Miss Quinlan, too. She’s made me a few generous offers to trade again.” Hunt’s stomach became leaden. “I’ve turned her down so far. I told her that you’re too valuable to me.”

Micah threw a file on the table, then turned back to the window. “Don’t make me reconsider, Hunt.”

Hunt read through the file—the silent order it conveyed. His punishment. For Sabine, for taking too long, for just existing. A death for a death.

He stopped at the barracks to pick up his helmet.

Micah had written a note in the margin of the list of targets, their crimes. No guns.

So Hunt grabbed a few more of his black-hilted daggers, and his long-handled knife, too.

Every movement was careful. Deliberate. Every shift of his body as he donned his black battle-suit quieted his mind, pulling him farther and farther from himself.

His phone buzzed on his desk, and he glanced at it only long enough to see that Bryce Is a Queen had written to him: Everything okay?

Hunt slid on his black gloves. His phone buzzed again.

I’m going to order in dumpling soup for lunch. Want some?

Hunt turned the phone over, blocking the screen from view. As if it’d somehow stop her from learning what he was doing. He gathered his weapons with centuries of efficiency. And then donned the helmet.

The world descended into cool calculations, its colors dimmed.

Only then did he pick up his phone and write back to Bryce, I’m good. I’ll see you later.

She’d written back by the time he reached the barracks landing pad. He’d watched the typing bubble pop up, vanish, then pop up again. Like she’d written out ten different replies before settling on Okay.

Hunt shut off his phone as he shouldered his way through the doors and into the open air.

He was a stain against the brightness. A shadow standing against the sun.

A flap of his wings had him skyborne. And he did not look back.

Something was wrong.

Bryce had known it the moment she realized she hadn’t heard from him after an hour in the Comitium.

The feeling had only worsened at his vague response to her message.

No mention of why he’d been called in, what he was up to.

As if someone else had written it for him.

She’d typed out a dozen different replies to that not-Hunt message.

Please tell me everything is okay. Type 1 if you need help.

Did I do something to upset you?

What’s wrong?

Do you need me to come to the Comitium?

Turning down an offer of dumpling soup—did someone steal this phone?

On and on, writing and deleting, until she’d written, I’m worried. Please call me. But she had no right to be worried, to demand those things of him.

So she’d settled with a pathetic Okay.

And had not heard back from him. She’d checked her phone obsessively the whole workday.

Nothing.

Worry was a writhing knot in her stomach. She didn’t even order the soup. A glance at the roof cameras showed Naomi sitting there all day, her face tight.

Bryce had gone up there around three. “Do you have any idea where he might have gone?” she asked, her arms wrapped tightly around herself.

Naomi looked her over. “Hunt is fine,” she said. “He …” She stopped herself, reading something on Bryce’s face. Surprise flickered in her eyes. “He’s fine,” the angel said gently.

By the time Bryce got home, with Naomi stationed on the adjacent rooftop, she had stopped believing her.

So she’d decided to Hel with it. To Hel with caution or looking cool or any of it.

Standing in her kitchen as the clock crept toward eight, she wrote to Hunt, Please call me. I’m worried about you.

There. Let it shoot into the ether or wherever the messages floated.

She walked Syrinx one final time for the night, her phone clutched in her hand. As if the harder she gripped it, the more likely he’d be to respond.

It was eleven by the time she broke, and dialed a familiar number.

Ruhn picked up on the first ring. “What’s wrong?”

How he knew, she didn’t care. “I …” She swallowed.

“Bryce.” Ruhn’s voice sharpened. Music was playing in the background, but it began to shift, as if he were moving to a quieter part of wherever he was.

“Have you seen Hunt anywhere today?” Her voice sounded thin and high.

In the background, Flynn asked, “Is everything okay?” Ruhn just asked her, “What happened?”

“Like, have you seen Hunt at the gun range, or anywhere—” The music faded. A door slammed. “Where are you?”

“Home.” It hit her then, the rush of how stupid this was, calling him, asking if Ruhn, of all people, knew what the Governor’s personal assassin was doing.

“Give me five minutes—”

“No, I don’t need you here. I’m fine. I just …” Her throat burned. “I can’t find him.” What if Hunt was lying in a pile of bones and flesh and blood?

When her silence dragged on, Ruhn said with quiet intensity, “I’ll put Dec and Flynn on it right—”

The enchantments hummed, and the front door unlocked.

Bryce went still as the door slowly opened. As Hunt, clad in battle-black and wearing that famed helmet, walked in.

Every step seemed like it took all of his concentration. And his scent

Blood.

Not his own. “Bryce?”

“He’s back,” she breathed into the phone. “I’ll call you tomorrow,”

she said to her brother, and hung up.

Hunt paused in the center of the room.

Blood stained his wings. Shone on his leather suit. Splattered the visor of his helmet.

“What—what happened?” she managed to get out.

He began walking again. Walked straight past her, the scent of all that blood—several different types of blood—staining the air. He didn’t say a word.

“Hunt.” Any relief that had surged through her now transformed into something sharper.

He headed for his room and did not stop. She didn’t dare to move.

He was a wraith, a demon, a—a shadow of death.

This male, helmeted and in his battle clothes … she didn’t know him.

Hunt reached his room, not even looking at her as he shut the door behind him.

He couldn’t stand it.

He couldn’t stand the look of pure, knee-wobbling relief on her face when he’d walked into the apartment. He’d come right back here after

he’d finished because he thought she’d be asleep and he could wash off the blood without having to go back to the Comitium barracks first, but she’d been just standing in the living room. Waiting for him.

And as he’d stepped into the apartment and she’d seen and smelled the blood …

He couldn’t stand the horror and pain on her face, either.

You see what this life has done to me? he wanted to ask. But he had been beyond words. There had been only screaming until now. From the three males he’d spent hours ending, all of it done to Micah’s specifications.

Hunt strode for the bathroom and turned the shower up to scalding. He removed the helmet, the bright lights stinging his eyes without the visor’s cooling tones. Then he removed his gloves.

She had looked so horrified. It was no surprise. She couldn’t have really understood what he was, who he was, until now. Why people shied away from him. Didn’t meet his eyes.

Hunt peeled his suit off, his bruised skin already healing. The drug lords he’d ended tonight had gotten in a few blows before he’d subdued them. Before he’d pinned them to the ground, impaled on his blades.

And left them there, shrieking in pain, for hours.

Naked, he stepped into the shower, the white tiles already sweating with steam.

The scalding water blasted his skin like acid.

He swallowed his scream, his sob, his whimper, and didn’t balk from the boiling torrent.

Didn’t do anything as he let it burn everything away.

Micah had sent him on a mission. Had ordered Hunt to kill someone. Several people, from the different scents on him. Did each one of those lives count toward his hideous debt?

It was his job, his path to freedom, what he did for the Governor, and yet … And yet Bryce had never really considered it. What it did to him. What the consequences were.

It wasn’t a path to freedom. It was a path to Hel.

Bryce lingered in the living room, waiting for him to finish showering. The water kept running. Twenty minutes. Thirty. Forty.

When the clock crept up on an hour, she found herself knocking on his door. “Hunt?”

No answer. The water continued.

She cracked the door, peering into the dim bedroom. The bathroom door stood open, steam wafting out. So much steam that the bedroom had turned muggy.

“Hunt?” She pushed forward, craning her neck to see into the bright bathroom. No sign of him in the shower—

A hint of a soaked gray wing rose from behind the shower glass. She moved, not thinking. Not caring.

She was in the bathroom in a heartbeat, his name on her lips, bracing for the worst, wishing she’d grabbed her phone from the kitchen counter

But there he was. Sitting naked on the floor of the shower, his head bowed between his knees. Water pounded into his back, his wings, dripping off his hair. His gold-dusted brown skin gleamed an angry red.

Bryce took one step into the shower and hissed. The water was scalding. Burning hot.

“Hunt,” she said. He didn’t so much as blink.

She glanced between him and the showerhead. His body was healing the burns—healing and then scalding, healing and scalding. It had to be torturous.

She bit down on her yelp as she reached into the shower, the near-boiling water soaking her shirt, her pants, and lowered the temperature.

He didn’t move. Didn’t even look at her. He’d done this many times, she realized. Every time Micah had sent him out, and for all the Archangels he’d served before that.

Syrinx came to investigate, sniffed at the bloody clothes, then sprawled himself on the bath mat, head on his front paws.

Hunt made no indication that he knew she stood there. But his breathing deepened. Became easier.

And she couldn’t explain why she did it, but she grabbed a bottle of shampoo and the block of lavender soap from the nook in the tiles. Then knelt before him.

“I’m going to clean you off,” she said quietly. “If that’s all right.”

A slight but terribly clear nod was his only response. Like words were still too hard.

So Bryce poured the shampoo into her hands, and then laced her fingers into his hair. The thick strands were heavy, and she gently scrubbed, tipping his head back to rinse it. His eyes lifted at last. Met hers, as his head leaned back into the stream of water.

“You look how I feel,” she whispered, her throat tight. “Every day.” He blinked, his only sign that he’d heard.

She removed her hands from his hair, and picked up the bar of soap. He was naked, she realized, having somehow forgotten. Utterly naked. She didn’t let herself contemplate it as she began lathering his neck, his powerful shoulders, his muscled arms. “I’ll leave your bottom half for you to enjoy,” she said, her face heating.

He was just watching her with that raw openness. More intimate than any touch of his lips on her neck. Like he indeed saw everything she was and had been and might yet become.

She scrubbed down his upper body as best she could. “I can’t clean your wings with you sitting against the wall.”

Hunt rose to his feet in a mighty, graceful push.

She kept her eyes averted from what, exactly, this brought into her direct line of vision. The very considerable something that he didn’t seem to notice or care about.

So she wouldn’t care about it, either. She stood, water splattering her, and gently turned him. She didn’t let herself admire the view from behind, either. The muscles and perfection of him.

Your ass is perfect, he’d said to her.

Likewise, she could now attest.

She soaped his wings, now dark gray in the water.

He towered over her, enough that she had to rise to her toes to reach the apex of his wings. In silence, she washed him, and Hunt braced his hands against the tiles, his head hanging. He needed rest, and the comfort of oblivion. So Bryce rinsed off the soap, making sure each and every feather was clean, and then reached around the angel to turn off the shower.

Only the dribbling of water eddying into the drain filled the steamy bathroom.

Bryce grabbed a towel, keeping her eyes up as Hunt turned to face her. She slung it around his hips, yanked a second towel off the bar just outside the shower stall, and ran it over his tan skin. Gently patted his wings dry. Then rubbed his hair.

“Come on,” she murmured. “Bed.”

His face became more alert, but he didn’t object when she tugged him from the shower, dripping water from her sodden clothes and hair. Didn’t object when she led him into the bedroom, to the chest of drawers where he’d put his things.

She pulled out a pair of black undershorts and stooped down, eyes firmly on the ground as she stretched out the waistband. “Step in.”

Hunt obeyed, first one foot and then the other. She rose, sliding the shorts up his powerful thighs and releasing the elastic waist with a soft snap. Bryce snatched a white T-shirt from another drawer, frowned at the complicated slats on the back to fit his wings, and set it down again. “Underwear it is,” she declared, pulling back the blanket on the bed he so dutifully made each morning. She patted the mattress. “Get some sleep, Hunt.”

Again, he obeyed, sliding between the sheets with a soft groan.

She shut off the bathroom light, darkening the bedroom, and returned to where he now lay, still staring at her. Daring to stroke his damp hair away from his brow, Bryce’s fingers grazed over the hateful tattoo. His eyes closed.

“I was so worried about you,” she whispered, stroking his hair again. “I …” She couldn’t finish the sentence. So she made to step back, to head to her room and change into dry clothes and maybe get some sleep herself.

But a warm, strong hand gripped her wrist. Halted her.

She looked back, and found Hunt staring at her again. “What?” A slight tug on her wrist told her everything.

Stay.

Her chest squeezed to the point of pain. “Okay.” She took a breath. “Okay, sure.”

And for some reason, the thought of going all the way to her bedroom, of leaving him for even a moment, seemed too risky. Like he might vanish again if she left to change.

So she grabbed the white T-shirt she’d intended to give him, and twisted away, peeling off her own shirt and bra and chucking them into the bathroom. They landed with a slap on the tiles, drowning out the rustle of his soft shirt as she slid it over herself. It hung down to her knees, providing enough coverage that she shucked off her wet sweats and underwear and threw them into the bathroom, too.

Syrinx had leapt into the bed, curling at the foot. And Hunt had moved over, giving her ample room. “Okay,” she said again, more to herself.

The sheets were warm, and smelled of him—rain-kissed cedar. She tried not to breathe it in too obviously as she took up a sitting position against the headboard. And she tried not to look too shocked when he laid his head on her thigh, his arm coming across her to rest on the pillow.

A child laying his head on his mother’s lap. A friend looking for any sort of reassuring contact to remind him that he was a living being. A good person, no matter what they made him do.

Bryce tentatively brushed the hair from his brow again.

Hunt’s eyes closed, but he leaned slightly into the touch. A silent request.

So Bryce continued stroking his hair, over and over, until his breathing deepened and steadied, until his powerful body grew limp beside hers.

It smelled like paradise. Like home and eternity and like exactly where he was meant to be.

Hunt opened his eyes to feminine softness and warmth and gentle breathing.

In the dim light, he found himself half-sprawled across Bryce’s lap, the woman herself passed out against the headboard, head lolling to the side. Her hand still lingered in his hair, the other in the sheets by his arm.

The clock read three thirty. It wasn’t the time that surprised him, but the fact that he was clearheaded enough to notice.

She’d taken care of him. Washed and clothed and soothed him. He couldn’t remember the last time anyone had done that.

Hunt carefully peeled his face from her lap, realizing that her legs were bare. That she wasn’t wearing anything beneath his T-shirt. And his face had been mere inches away.

His muscles protested only slightly as he rose upward. Bryce didn’t so much as stir.

She’d put him in his underwear, for fuck’s sake.

His cheeks warmed, but he eased from the bed, Syrinx opening an eye to see what the commotion was about. He waved the beastie off and padded to Bryce’s side of the mattress.

She stirred only slightly as he scooped her into his arms and carried her to her own room. He laid her on her bed, and she grumbled, protesting at the cool sheets, but he swiftly tossed the down comforter over her and left before she could awaken.

He was halfway across the living area when her phone, discarded on the kitchen counter, glared with light. Hunt looked at it, unable to help himself.

A chain of messages from Ruhn filled the screen, all from the past few hours.

Is Athalar all right? Later, Are you all right?

Then, an hour ago, I called the front desk of your building, and the doorman reassured me that you’re both up there, so I’m assuming you two are fine. But call me in the morning.

And then from thirty seconds ago, as if it were an afterthought, I’m glad you called me tonight. I know things are fucked up between us, and I know a lot of that is my fault, but if you ever need me, I’m here. Anytime at all, Bryce.

Hunt glanced toward her bedroom hallway. She’d called Ruhn— that’s who she’d been on the phone with when he got back. He rubbed at his chest.

He fell back asleep in his own bed, where the scent of her still lingered, like a phantom, warming touch.

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