Bryce bit back a groan as she stretched her aching muscles. Even though she’d kept up long hours in the gym and running around the city over the past two years, it wasn’t quite the same, she thought wryly, as actually dancing. Her hips and calves, especially, had started to cramp about halfway through the 90-minute class, now unused to the movements that used to be second nature. She had expected there to be a readjustment period after not dancing for so long, but had forgotten exactly how painful her body could be after holding and repeating the small, precise motions of ballet.
At least, she thought to herself, no one recognized the Autumn King’s daughter among the tights-and-leotard-clad group in Madame Kyrah’s class. The media had finally stopped lurking outside her apartment once Hunt had threatened them within an inch of their lives if they didn’t leave her alone. It was the first and only time she had let him go full-alphahole, and she would be lying if she said it wasn’t a turn on to watch him land in front of them, lightning crackling, and send them running. Her face had disappeared from the news entirely after that, and thankfully for her there was plenty to keep the gossip columnists and sleazy reporters busy in this city.
With a final roll of her ankles, Bryce pulled off her ballet shoes and padded over to her belongings. Since she was planning to go out to dinner with Ruhn, she put the dress she had worn to work on over her leotard and slipped her feet back into her high heels, tossing her dance shoes into her bag. With a small smile despite the soreness already setting in, she slung her bag over her shoulder and headed out to the lobby of the studio.
Ruhn was indeed waiting for her, but didn’t notice her until she was practically on top of him. He was deep in conversation with a large, handsome male, also Fae judging by the pointed ears peeking out through short silver locks. They seemed to both be examining something on Ruhn’s forearm, and Bryce caught the end of their conversation as she approached.
“...needs to be filled in a little bit here,” the stranger was saying, gesturing with his pinky finger at a small area of Ruhn’s skin. Bryce cleared her throat as she stood before them, and both males looked up at her.
“Bryce!” Ruhn exclaimed, pulling her into a tight hug, which she returned quickly before stepping back. She flicked a questioning look at the male next to him, meeting his piercing green eyes for half a heartbeat before looking back at her brother. “This is Rowan,” he explained. “He did some of my tattoos. Rowan, this is my sister, Bryce.”
“Nice to meet you,” Bryce said, shaking Rowan’s hand. “I didn’t realize anyone but witches did tattoos here in the city.”
Rowan gave her a small smile as he released her hand. “I had a witch teach me while I was still in the Aux, so I could do my own.” He gestured to the left side of his face, where the swirls of an intricate tattoo slipped below his shirt collar and spilled down his arm. Bryce was able to make out a few words written in the Old Language of the Fae wrapped around his massive bicep. “When I decided I wanted to do something different with my life, I opened up my own shop.”
Bryce opened her mouth to compliment his work, but was interrupted before she could speak. “Buzzard, are you harassing these nice people?” drawled a female voice from behind her, and she whirled to see a stunning blonde, also Fae, standing with her arms crossed and her own dance bag over her shoulder.
Bryce looked back to Rowan, who gave her a long-suffering look before tucking the female into his side. “This is my wife, Aelin. Fireheart, this is Ruhn and his sister Bryce.” Aelin smiled as she shook their hands, recognition lighting her eyes as she took them in. To Bryce’s eternal gratitude, however, all she said was, “I noticed you during class. You have excellent technique.”
“Likewise,” Bryce replied with a smile. Indeed, among the group of mostly humans, Aelin had stood out, her grace unmatched even by the other Vanir in the room. Bryce had been silently cursing the female for making the rest of them look bad in comparison, but the mischievous slant to her smile and the way her intimidating husband clearly adored her had Bryce sensing a kindred spirit. So she took a chance, giving the blonde a wicked grin of her own, and said, “Your husband does excellent work. I was just about to ask him if he’d do a purple unicorn with wings on my ass.”
Ruhn choked and Rowan turned red, but Aelin threw her head back and howled with laughter. “He’s much better with abstract shapes,” she managed between giggles. “You wouldn’t want a wonky unicorn on your ass forever.”
“That’s a good point,” Bryce conceded, nodding gravely but still grinning like a fiend.
Ruhn, it seemed, had had enough, and gently grasped her by the elbow. “Come on B, I’m starving,” he pleaded, gesturing to the door.
Bryce rolled her eyes, but allowed Ruhn to lead her away. "See you next week?" she called over her shoulder to Aelin.
"I'll help you sketch out that tattoo!" came the reply, along with a yelp as Rowan pinched her hip.
Bryce chuckled as she and Ruhn stepped out onto the sidewalk and joined the throng headed toward the Old Square. "Gods, Bryce, couldn't you wait until after he touched up my tat to antagonize the guy?"
"Oh shut up, Ruhn," she replied good-naturedly, elbowing him in the side as they strode off toward the restaurant.
The next week Bryce had just left Griffin Antiquities to head to Madame Kyrah’s class when she heard someone calling her name. She whirled to see Aelin striding toward her, bag on her arm and a friendly smile on her face. Bryce returned the grin, waiting for the other woman to catch up with her. “Hey, Bryce!” Aelin said brightly as they fell into step together. “Doing some shopping?” she asked, gesturing over her shoulder with her thumb to the closed door behind them.
“No, I work there. I’m officially an ‘Assistant Antiquities Dealer’ but practically speaking I’m Jesiba’s bitch,” Bryce replied, and Aelin laughed. “Do you work around here too?”
“Yeah, at the University,” Aelin said as they rounded the corner toward the studio. “I’m in charge of acquisitions for the library.”
"I bet you come across some really interesting stuff," Bryce prodded, intrigued.
"Mostly I order whatever new textbooks the professors assign their classes," Aelin admitted, "but once I came across a sexual advice book written for angels. Some of the illustrations were very instructive." She gave Bryce a suggestive eyebrow wiggle. "Speaking of angels, is it true that you're dating Hunt Athalar? I could track down that book for you if you want." Bryce snorted at the shit-eating grin on Aelin's face, but the other woman continued. “What’s he like? He seems like the sort to toss you over his shoulder and have his way with you.”
Bryce gave her a disbelieving look. “Says the woman married to a literal wall of muscle!” Aelin gave her a wink, which sent both of them into a fit of laughter that lasted until they reached the door of the studio. “Tell you what,” Bryce said as they walked into the changing room, “he’s coming to pick me up tonight after class and you can meet him yourself.”
The two women took up spots next to each other during class, and while they didn’t have many opportunities to speak Bryce found that she enjoyed merely being in Aelin’s company. Not only was her technique exquisite, as she had noticed the first class, but Bryce saw the same joy in her face that she herself experienced while twisting and leaping across the floor. Before she knew it, they were both sitting on the ground stretching, the room emptying out around them.
“I’m starving,” Aelin announced as she stood. She walked over to her belongings and rifled through her bag. “Ugh, I really have to remember to pack snacks.”
Bryce’s stomach rumbled in agreement as she rose and went to her own bag. She pulled on a pair of sweatpants and swapped her ballet slippers for the flats she had worn to work. Checking her phone, she saw a chain of texts waiting for her.
Feathery Pain in the Ass: What time is your class over again?
Feathery Pain in the Ass: Oh never mind, I asked Ruhn
Feathery Pain in the Ass: He says hi
And then, from just a moment ago:
Feathery Pain in the Ass: I’m here.
Feathery Pain in the Ass: Waiting outside because this lobby is seriously claustrophobic
Bryce grinned, gathering up everything and tossing her bag over her shoulder. Turning to Aelin, she asked, “Ready to meet the Umbra Mortis?”
Aelin’s answering smile was positively feral. “Lead the way,” she gestured with a flourish. Bryce shouldered her way through the still-crowded lobby and onto the sidewalk outside. Looking around, she immediately spotted a large winged figure, and headed toward him.
Hunt had been staring down at his phone, but looked up as he heard them approach. He was dressed casually in jeans and his backward sunball cap, and Bryce’s heart gave a small lurch the way it always did when his dark eyes met hers. She gave him a small smile and a kiss in greeting, before turning back to introduce him to Aelin.
She found her friend standing a few paces behind her, gaping open-mouthed at them. “The Umbra Mortis wears a sunball cap?” she exclaimed disbelievingly, and Bryce burst out laughing as Hunt tensed beside her.
“That was my first reaction too,” she admitted between chuckles. She gave Hunt’s waist a small squeeze as she turned back to him. “Hunt, this is Aelin. Aelin, Hunt.”
Hunt relaxed as he reached out to shake Aelin’s hand. She gave him a long, appreciative look as she took in his muscled frame and silver-gray wings, before letting out a low whistle and looking over to Bryce. “You didn’t tell me he was gorgeous,” she said accusingly, lips curling up into a grin.
“And he cooks, too,” Bryce said, returning the smile as Hunt cleared his throat. Bryce looked over to find him raising his eyebrows, and he pinched her gently on the hip in retaliation.
“Ready to go?” he asked, pulling her closer into his side. She nodded, turning to say goodbye to Aelin.
“See you next week?”
Aelin, who was gazing at Hunt's wings with what looked like envy, nodded. “Do you want to walk together again? I go by your job on the way.”
“Sure,” Bryce replied with a grin. “Same time as today?”
“Here,” Aelin said, thrusting her phone into Bryce’s hands. “Give me your number, and I’ll text you when I’m outside the gallery.” Bryce quickly tapped in her number, saving it as Bryce with the Gorgeous Boyfriend before handing the phone back. Aelin laughed as she saw Bryce’s contact name and tapped a few buttons. Bryce heard her phone vibrate inside her purse. “There, now you have my number too. You can save it as Fire-Breathing Bitch Queen, ” she added with another wink.
“Sure thing, your majesty,” Bryce called as Hunt scooped her into his arms and shot them into the air, pulling her into his chest tightly.
“So I guess you made a new friend?” he asked as he angled them toward their apartment.
Bryce shrugged as best she could while squished against him. “I met her and her husband last week, and she didn’t get mad when I asked him to tattoo my ass, so I think we’re practically best friends now.”
“And what, exactly, did you ask him to tattoo on your ass?” Hunt asked, his eyes narrowed.
“Jelly Jubilee, of course,” Bryce replied with a smirk, which sent a low chuckle echoing through his chest.
“Well I’m glad you have someone to walk with, even if she did objectify me,” he teased, his voice still tinged with laughter.
“Oh please, you like that she called you gorgeous,” Bryce said with an eye roll as they landed on their rooftop. “You Vanir males and your damn vanity. You’ll be preening like a peacock for a week.”
Bryce made to extract herself from his embrace, but he merely strode toward the door that led to the staircase. “I like that you didn’t disagree with her, sweetheart,” he said into her neck, making her shiver in delight and anticipation as he finally set her down, shooting her a cocky grin before disappearing down the stairs.