WHEN SAM Riley was nine years old, he fell out of the branches of the tallest tree in his neighborhood and discovered something that would change his life forever.
He had climbed up the towering tree inch by inch, stubbornly following his best friend, Harry Holden, even though the older boy had warned him it was too high, too slippery, too dangerous. Sam had considered the warnings carefully, as he considered everything Harry told him, but eventually he’d shrugged.
“I think I can do it.”
Harry inclined his head, as though weighing the risk, and then he nodded wordlessly. Challenging the tree was a rite of passage for all the neighborhood kids; in the end, it was Sam’s decision to make. Harry turned and started his own climb, seeming to fly up the tree with enviable ease. Sam followed, more slowly, but with a dogged determination that was every inch a match for Harry’s innate confidence.
He could still remember the feeling when he reached the top—a mixture of savage fear and triumphant exhilaration. Harry had looked over at him, a wide grin transforming his face and seeming to light him from the inside.
“You did it, Sammy,” he marveled.
Sam could scarcely breathe. His muscles were rigid with tension, even as he savored his achievement and the look of pride on Harry’s face.
And then he heard his mother’s terrified shriek, and his head jerked down sharply. He took a reflexive step back and froze as the slender branch on which he was precariously balanced cracked under his shifting weight.
In the split second before the branch broke, his gaze locked with Harry’s. It was easy to read horror on his friend’s face, and even at nine years old, Sam recognized the flash of bitter recrimination that followed.
“It isn’t your fault, Harry.”
He hadn’t said the words, of course. By that time, he’d been falling backward through cool air reverberating with his mother’s high-pitched screams.
He never knew exactly what happened next. One minute he was falling, the next he was cradled in his mother’s lap, dazed but unscathed. He’d had a fleeting image of Harry reaching out to him, of hands clasping his own, of his fall slowed by a tremendous force tugging against gravity. And then there was nothing but his mother’s face looming over him, and her tears dripping onto his cheeks.
He had looked around frantically until his eyes again found Harry’s.
“You flew,” he croaked.
Harry frowned and started backing away.
Sam’s mother stopped wailing long enough to raise her head, her eyes growing round with wonder. “You saved him,” she breathed. She didn’t stop to question how a ten-year-old who was standing at the top of the tallest tree in the neighborhood could have saved a boy hurtling to certain death. She simply crossed herself fervently and murmured, “You are his guardian angel.”
Though seven eventful years had passed since then, it was a memory that popped up now as Sam watched his best friend float gently to the ground after leaping from the top of an abandoned five-story building.
“It wasn’t perfect, but it was better this time,” Harry said, walking toward Sam with a satisfied look on his face. “It was better, wasn’t it, Sammy? I did it exactly the way you said. Tell me I wasn’t imagining the improvement.”
Sam smiled. “It was better.”
Harry’s face broke into a grin, and he slung his arm around Sam’s neck.
“Aren’t you going to say ‘I told you so’?”
“That would be petty,” Sam said. “Although, let’s face it, I did tell you—”
“Screw you,” Harry said cheerfully.
“You’re still pulling up too quickly,” Sam warned.
Harry grimaced and then sighed. “One more time?”
“One more time,” Sam agreed.
Harry nodded, and then he leaned over and planted a kiss on Sam’s lips. Sam reached to cup the back of Harry’s head as the kiss deepened, groaning when Harry pressed closer. He pulled back reluctantly, amused at Harry’s dazed expression.
“Finish practicing first.”
“You’re kidding!” Harry reached out, but Sam easily sidestepped his grasping hand.
“C’mon, Angel,” he chided. “You know you have to.”
He almost laughed out loud at the petulant look on Harry’s face.
“Okay, okay. One more jump,” Harry said. “Then I want pizza and beer. Lots of beer.”
He pressed another kiss against Sam’s cheek, and then he turned and trudged back toward the dilapidated building. Sam glanced around hastily, even though it was unlikely anybody was near the long-abandoned warehouse district.
When Harry shot into the air, Sam sucked in a sharp breath. He craned his neck, following Harry with his eyes as he rose up, hovered in place for a fraction of a second, and then stepped onto the building’s roof. After years of watching Harry fly, Sam was no longer slack-jawed with amazement, but his heart still leapt into his throat when Harry took a running jump and dived off the building’s edge headfirst. At the last minute, when bowstring tension stiffened Sam’s spine to breaking point, Harry pulled out of his dive and straightened, slowing his fall dramatically until he once again floated to earth.
“Better?” he called.
Sam gave him the thumbs-up, smiling when Harry threw his arms wide, grinning in triumph.
“Beer o’clock, dude,” Harry called. “And make sure the pizza has anchovies.”
Sam pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and hit one of the preset keys, then waited patiently while the automated voice read through the options. Harry started walking toward him, whistling tunelessly. His wavy hair straggled over his deep blue eyes, and he reached up absently to tuck loose strands behind his ear. He moved with easy grace, his lithe body honed by hours of training and daily practice. When he looked up, his smile was dazzling and assured and so beautiful, it sometimes made Sam’s heart hurt.
“You flew, Angel. You really flew,” Sam whispered.
Because though it might not be the miracle he had once thought, it was still freaking awesome.
THEY PICKED up their pizza at the take-out window of Sal’s Pizzeria. Harry flashed his fake ID at the teen behind the counter, who slid two bottles of beer toward them with a knowing smirk on his face.
“I don’t know why they go through that performance every time,” Sam grumbled. “They know we’re both underage.”
Harry slapped him on the back. “They’re just playing the game, Sammy. No sweat.”
As they approached their apartment building, Sam dug into the pocket of his jeans and located his keys, then unlocked the front door and gave it a shove. It opened with a loud creak. When Sam stepped over the threshold, he wrinkled his nose.
“Why does it always smell like boiled cabbage?”
Harry shrugged. “It’ll smell like pepperoni and anchovy pizza soon.”
He led the way up three flights of stairs and turned left into a gloomy corridor. No matter how many times Sam walked down this hallway, he never felt at ease. An itch crawled down his spine, as though the weight of a malevolent stare was following his every move. He was glad when they made it into the relative safety of their own place.
“You want plates?” Harry asked.
Sam raised an eyebrow. “You expecting the Queen of England?”
Harry threw the pizza box onto the tiny kitchen table and pulled out a slice. “Just asking, man.”
“I’m good.” Sam grabbed a slice of his own and pulled up a chair. He had only taken one bite before his phone pinged with an incoming text. He grimaced when he read the message. “It’s Maia. She wants to meet tomorrow.”
“What for?” Harry asked.
“She doesn’t say. Some messed up shit no doubt….” He trailed off at Harry’s faintly reproving look. “What? You know she hates my guts. Why shouldn’t I return the favor?”
Harry reached out and dragged a thumb across Sam’s chin. It came away dripping tomato sauce. “This is why we should use plates,” he said, sucking the sauce off his thumb.
Sam knew he was trying to change the subject, and since he had no interest in another argument about Maia Kodama, he gladly took the hint. “You want to go out tonight?”
Harry shrugged and drained the last of the beer. “Let me grab a shower first.” He raised a speculative eyebrow. “You coming?”
“I’m not the one who worked up a sweat.”
Harry leaned forward and licked Sam’s lips. “I could do something about that.”
Sam smiled as Harry slipped a hand in his and tugged him to his feet. He followed Harry to the tiny bathroom and watched as he turned the taps and then stripped quickly out of his jeans and T-shirt before stepping under the showerhead.
Sam pulled his own clothes off and climbed in behind him. He lightly traced the outline of the jet-black tattoo covering Harry’s upper body—a pair of wings that spread across his back and hugged the contours of his shoulders. Harry lifted his face to the spray and raised his arms above his head, splaying his fingers on the cracked white tiles. The breath caught in Sam’s throat as Harry’s muscles flexed, the play of light and cascading water making the tattoo appear to move.
He took a step forward and pressed himself against Harry’s firm body, then kissed the back of his neck and slid an arm around his waist to hold him close. Harry murmured appreciatively and threw his head back, encouraging Sam’s gentle exploration.
The water was already cooling as Harry turned without dislodging Sam’s arm, and cupped the hardness between Sam’s legs. Sam briefly considered suggesting they move to the bed, but his words were stolen when Harry quickly established a rhythm that soon had Sam arching his back and trying to muffle a cry. The small part of him that wasn’t swamped by the rush of pleasure kicked in, and he reached for Harry and mirrored the pulsing pace he’d set, and seconds later Sam’s whole body clenched alongside Harry’s as release sped through them both.
It was impossible to linger and enjoy the moment because the hot water suddenly ran out, and the spray turned icy. Sam swore under his breath and grabbed a towel as Harry shut off the shower with a loud sigh.
“You’d think the superhero business would pay better,” Sam muttered. “We should at least be able to afford a place with hot water.”
Harry just laughed. “It’s that whole ‘secret identity’ thing. It makes it hard to cash in.” He paused for a minute before adding softly, “It’ll get better, Sammy. I promise.”
Sam was instantly flooded with remorse. “I’m not blaming you. I chose to be here.”
Harry reached up and gently traced a pattern on Sam’s chest, his fingers outlining a smaller version of the winged tattoo he wore on his back. It had taken months to create the intricate original, but only a day to copy the design in miniature over Sam’s heart.
“You know I couldn’t do any of this without you,” Harry murmured.
Sam had never believed that was true, but he kept the observation to himself. “Come on,” he said instead. “I’m freezing my nuts off here.”
LATER CRAMMED together on the pullout couch and drifting toward sleep, Sam cast his mind back to the day he’d been inked. He hadn’t thought Harry remembered the significance of the August date, so he’d been surprised when his friend smiled down at him as the vibrating needle hovered above Sam’s heart.
“It was a pretty special day for me too. The day I knew we’d always be together.”
Sam flinched as the needle bit into his flesh. “How did you know?”
Harry’s smile grew softer. “Because you were the first person who really saw who I was.”
Sam had heard the story dozens of times over the years, so he knew his accident had triggered Harry’s special abilities. But Harry wasn’t talking about that, and they both knew it.
As he’d lain on the ground that day, clutched tightly between his mother’s trembling hands, Sam had raised his head and looked directly into Harry’s eyes. Harry had been backing away, but he stopped dead in his tracks as something electric passed between them that Sam felt right down to his core.
As the tattoo took shape, the inked wings spreading over his heart, Sam’s skin began to tingle. He reached for Harry’s hand and sucked in a sharp breath when that same jolt of electricity flowed through him, heating his whole body from the inside out.
Beside him, Harry shifted restlessly, bringing Sam back to the present. He reached out and placed a hand on Harry’s back, his fingers splaying across the great black wings. His own mark pulsed rhythmically, a constant reminder of their connection.
Sam leaned over and whispered, “Love you, Angel,” and Harry settled with a deep sigh.
When he was nine years old, Sam Riley fell out of the branches of the tallest tree in his neighborhood and learned something that would change his life forever.
And he’d never had a moment’s regret since.