Hunt ate only because his body demanded it, slept because there was nothing else to do, and watched the TV screen in the hall beyond his cell bars because he’d brought this upon himself and Vik and Justinian and there was no undoing it.
Micah had left the latter’s body up. Justinian would hang there for seven full days and then be pulled off the crucifix—and dumped into the Istros. No Sailings for traitors. Just the bellies of the river beasts.
Viktoria’s box had already been dumped into the Melinoë Trench. The thought of her trapped on the seafloor, the deepest place in
Midgard, nothing but dark and silence and that tight, tight space … Dreams of her suffering had launched Hunt over to the toilet, puking
up his guts.
And then the itching began. Deep in his back, radiating through the framework now beginning to regrow, it itched and itched and itched. His fledgling wings remained sore enough that scratching them resulted in near-blinding pain, and as the hours ticked by, each new bit of growth had him clenching his jaw against it.
A waste, he silently told his body. A big fucking waste to regrow his wings, when he was likely hours or days away from an execution.
He’d had no visitors since Isaiah six days ago. He’d tracked the time by watching the sunlight shift in the atrium on the TV feed.
Not a whisper from Bryce. Not that he dared hope she’d somehow find a way to see him, if only to let him beg on his knees for her forgiveness. To tell her what he needed to say.
Maybe Micah would let him rot down here. Let him go mad like Vik, buried beneath the earth, unable to fly, unable to feel fresh air on his face.
The doors down the hall hissed, and Hunt blinked, rising from his silence. Even his miserably itching wings halted their torture.
But the female scent that hit him a heartbeat later was not Bryce’s.
It was a scent he knew just as well—would never forget as long as he lived. A scent that stalked his nightmares, whetted his rage into a thing that made it impossible to think.
The Archangel of northwestern Pangera smiled as she appeared before his cell. He’d never get used to it: how much she looked like Shahar. “This seems familiar,” Sandriel said. Her voice was soft, beautiful. Like music. Her face was, too.
And yet her eyes, the color of fresh-tilled soil, gave her away. They were sharp, honed by millennia of cruelty and near-unchecked power. Eyes that delighted in pain and bloodshed and despair. That had always been the difference between her and Shahar—their eyes. Warmth in one; death in the other.
“I heard you want to kill me, Hunt,” the Archangel said, crossing her thin arms. She clicked her tongue. “Are we really back to that old game?”
He said nothing. Just sat on his cot and held her gaze.
“You know, when you had your belongings confiscated, they found some interesting things, which Micah was kind enough to share.” She pulled an object from her pocket. His phone. “This in particular.”
She waved a hand and his phone screen appeared on the TV behind her, its wireless connection showing every movement of her fingers through the various programs. “Your email, of course, was dull as dirt. Do you never delete anything?” She didn’t wait for his response before she went on. “But your messages …” Her lips curled, and she clicked on the most recent chain.
Bryce had changed her contact name one last time, it seemed.
Bryce Thinks Hunt Is the Best had written:
I know you’re not going to see this. I don’t even know why I’m writing to you.
She’d messaged a minute after that, I just … Then another pause.
Never mind. Whoever is screening this, never mind. Ignore this.
Then nothing. His head became so, so quiet.
“And you know what I found absolutely fascinating?” Sandriel was saying, clicking away from the messages and going into his photos. “These.” She chuckled. “Look at all of this. Who knew you could act so
She hit the slideshow function. Hunt just sat there as photos began appearing on the screen.
He’d never looked through them. The photos that he and Bryce had taken these weeks.
There he was, drinking a beer on her couch, petting Syrinx while watching a sunball game.
There he was, making her breakfast because he’d come to enjoy knowing that he could take care of her like that. She’d snapped another photo of him working in the kitchen: of his ass. With her own hand in the foreground, giving a thumbs-up of approval.
He might have laughed, might have smiled, had the next photo not popped up. A photo he’d taken this time, of her mid-sentence.
Then one of him and her on the street, Hunt looking notably annoyed at having his photo taken, while she grinned obnoxiously.
The photo he’d snapped of her dirty and drenched by the sewer grate, spitting mad.
A photo of Syrinx sleeping on his back, limbs splayed. A photo of Lehabah in the library, posing like a pinup girl on her little couch. Then a photo he’d gotten of the river at sunset as he flew overhead. A photo of Bryce’s tattooed back in the bathroom mirror, while she gave a saucy wink over her shoulder. A photo he’d taken of an otter in its yellow vest, then one he’d managed to grab a second later of Bryce’s delighted face.
He didn’t hear what Sandriel was saying.
The photos had begun as an ongoing joke, but they’d become real. Enjoyable. There were more of the two of them. And more photos that Hunt had taken, too. Of the food they’d eaten, interesting graffiti along the alleys, of clouds and things he normally never bothered to notice but had suddenly wanted to capture. And then ones where he looked into the camera and smiled.
Ones where Bryce’s face seemed to glow brighter, her smile softer. The dates drew closer to the present. There they were, on her couch,
her head on his shoulder, smiling broadly while he rolled his eyes. But his arm was around her. His fingers casually tangled in her hair. Then a photo he’d taken of her in his sunball hat. Then a ridiculous medley she’d taken of Jelly Jubilee and Peaches and Dreams and Princess Creampuff tucked into his bed. Posed on his dresser. In his bathroom.
And then some by the river again. He had a vague memory of her asking a passing tourist to snap a few. One by one, the various shots unfolded.
First, a photo with Bryce still talking and him grimacing.
Then one with her smiling and Hunt looking at her.
The third was of her still smiling—and Hunt still looking at her. Like she was the only person on the planet. In the galaxy.
His heart thundered. In the next few, her face had turned toward him.
Their eyes had met. Her smile had faltered.
As if realizing how he was looking at her.
In the next, she was smiling at the ground, his eyes still on her. A secret, soft smile. Like she knew, and didn’t mind one bit.
And then in the last, she had leaned her head against his chest, and wrapped her arms around his middle. He’d put his arm and wing around her. And they had both smiled.
True, broad smiles. Belonging to the people they might have been without the tattoo on his brow and the grief in her heart and this whole stupid fucking world around them.
A life. These were the photos of someone with a life, and a good one at that. A reminder of what it had felt like to have a home, and someone who cared whether he lived or died. Someone who made him smile just by entering a room.
He’d never had that before. With anyone.
The screen went dark, and then the photos began again.
And he could see it, this time. How her eyes—they had been so cold at the start. How even with her ridiculous pictures and poses, that smile hadn’t reached her eyes. But with each photo, more light had crept into them. Brightened them. Brightened his eyes, too. Until those last photos. When Bryce was near-glowing with joy.
She was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
Sandriel was smirking like a cat. “Is this really what you wanted in the end, Hunt?” She gestured to the photos. To Bryce’s smiling face. “To be freed one day, to marry the girl, to live out some ordinary, basic life?” She chuckled. “Whatever would Shahar say?”
Her name didn’t clang. And the guilt he thought would sear him didn’t so much as sizzle.
Sandriel’s full lips curved upward, a mockery of her twin’s smile. “Such simple, sweet wishes, Hunt. But that’s not how these things work out. Not for people like you.”
His stomach twisted. The photos were torture, he realized. To remind him of the life he might have had. What he’d tasted on the couch with Bryce the other night. What he’d pissed away.
“You know,” Sandriel said, “if you had played the obedient dog, Micah would have eventually petitioned for your freedom.” The words
pelted him. “But you couldn’t be patient. Couldn’t be smart. Couldn’t choose this”—she gestured to their photos—“over your own petty revenge.” Another snake’s smile. “So here we are. Here you are.” She studied a photo Hunt had taken of Bryce with Syrinx, the chimera’s pointed little teeth bared in something terrifyingly close to a grin. “The girl will probably cry her little heart out for a while. But then she’ll forget you, and she’ll find someone else. Maybe there will be some Fae male who can stomach an inferior pairing.”
Hunt’s senses pricked, his temper stirring.
Sandriel shrugged. “Or she’ll wind up in a dumpster with the other half-breeds.”
His fingers curled into fists. There was no threat in Sandriel’s words. Just the terrible practicality of how their world treated people like Bryce. “The point is,” Sandriel continued, “she will go on. And you and I
will go on, Hunt.”
At last, at last, he dragged his eyes from Bryce and the photos of the life, the home, they’d made. The life he still so desperately, stupidly wanted. His wings resumed their itching. “What.”
Sandriel’s smile sharpened. “Didn’t they tell you?”
Dread curled as he looked at his phone in her hands. As he realized why he’d been left alive, and why Sandriel had been allowed to take his belongings.
They were her belongings now.
Bryce entered the near-empty bar just after eleven. The lack of a brooding male presence guarding her back was like a phantom limb, but she ignored it, made herself forget about it as she spotted Ruhn sitting at the counter, sipping his whiskey.
Only Flynn had joined him, the male too busy seducing the female currently playing billiards with him to give Bryce more than a wary, pitying nod. She ignored it and slid onto the stool beside Ruhn, her dress squeaking against the leather. “Hi.”
Ruhn glanced sidelong at her. “Hey.”
The bartender strode over, brows raised in silent question. Bryce shook her head. She didn’t plan to be here long enough for a drink, water or otherwise. She wanted this over with as quickly as possible so she could go back home, take off her bra, and put on her sweats.
Bryce said, “I wanted to come by to say thanks.” Ruhn only stared at her. She watched the sunball game on the TV above the bar. “For the other day. Night. For looking out for me.”
Ruhn squinted at the tiled ceiling. “What?” she asked.
“I’m just checking to see if the sky’s falling, since you’re thanking me for something.”
She shoved his shoulder. “Asshole.”
“You could have called or messaged.” He sipped from his whiskey. “I thought it’d be more adultlike to do it face-to-face.”
Her brother surveyed her carefully. “How are you holding up?” “I’ve been better.” She admitted, “I feel like a fucking idiot.” “You’re not.”
“Oh yeah? Half a dozen people warned me, you included, to be on my guard around Hunt, and I laughed in all your faces.” She blew out a breath. “I should have seen it.”
“In your defense, I didn’t think Athalar was still that ruthless.” His blue eyes blazed. “I thought his priorities had shifted lately.”
She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, you and dear old Dad.” “He visited you?”
“Yep. Told me I’m just as big a piece of shit as he himself is. Like father, like daughter. Like calls to like or whatever.”
“You’re nothing like him.”
“Don’t bullshit a bullshitter, Ruhn.” She tapped the bar. “Anyway, that’s all I came to say.” She noted the Starsword hanging at his side, its black hilt not reflecting the firstlights in the room. “You on patrol tonight?”
“Not until midnight.” With his Fae metabolism, the whiskey would be out of his system long before then.
“Well … good luck.” She hopped off the stool, but Ruhn halted her with a hand on her elbow.
“I’m having some people over at my place in a couple weeks to watch the big sunball game. Why don’t you come over?”
“Just come for the first period. If it isn’t your thing, no problem.
Leave when you want.”
She scanned his face, weighing the offer there. The hand extended. “Why?” she asked quietly. “Why keep bothering?”
“Why keep pushing me away, Bryce?” His voice strained. “It wasn’t just about that fight.”
She swallowed, her throat thick. “You were my best friend,” she said. “Before Danika, you were my best friend. And I … It doesn’t matter now.” She’d realized back then that the truth didn’t matter—she
wouldn’t let it matter. She shrugged, as if it’d help lighten the crushing weight in her chest. “Maybe we could start over. On a trial basis only.”
Ruhn started to smile. “So you’ll come watch the game?”
“Juniper was supposed to come over that day, but I’ll see if she’s up for it.” Ruhn’s blue eyes twinkled like stars, but Bryce cut in, “No promises, though.”
He was still grinning when she rose from her barstool. “I’ll save a seat for you.”