Thomas East was meant to be the youngest Arch-Mage in history, a magical genius and a solver of problems. But he hadn’t expected quite so many problems -- not to mention the endless meetings, bureaucracy, and political negotiations. So he’s currently hiding in a sleepy California seaside town, working in an ice cream parlor and avoiding everyone he’s let down ... until a firebird in need of rescue crashes into his shop.
Nicholas Incandesco has far too many problems. He’s a firebird, a shapeshifter, and a power source, and a lot of magicians could use someone with his gifts. He’s also technically a murder suspect with two magical bounty hunters on his trail. He just wants someplace safe to land, and the attractive witch behind the ice cream counter might offer a sweet refuge.
This encounter might be exactly what both Nicholas and Tom need to find themselves ... and rescue each other.
“You think about us as people. Not legends to revere, not power sources you can use, just…” One fingertip traced a semicircle on the table, leaving invisible lines. “People.”
“Aren’t you?” And that invited even more questions, but surely no one -- not even the Arch-Mage -- could expect to entirely randomly run into another child of living breathing enchanted history. Their numbers weren’t that large, and even a magician’s luck couldn’t stretch that far. If Nicholas were anything it’d be one of the diluted bloodlines, more common, less power. The bounty hunters must’ve been wrong.
“I like to think so. Why’d you leave?”
At some point, Tom realized, he’d stopped being in charge of this conversation. Which was also more or less the answer to that question, left hanging in the air. “Frustrations. Not important. So ... some sort of avian shapeshifter? Seagull, pigeon, what?”
Nicholas gave him the world’s most offended eyebrows, said, “Pigeon!” with cheerful outrage, and held out a hand.
Coruscating color burst into life in the apartment. Red and gold, scarlet and primrose, sunspark yellow licking tongues and fluttering veils of crimson. They raced around and scampered and swirled through air, along bare arms, into inhumanly vibrant suggestions of shape-change.
“Oh,” Tom breathed, astounded, thrilled to the core, watching innate inborn magic at play.
Nicholas didn’t bother holding a proper shape-change, only the hints of one: sharpness in features, the ruffle of feathers, a billowing shadow of wings. He tucked it all back into himself after a second or two and sat demurely gazing across the kitchen table, over apple-slices.
“Phoenix,” Tom said, softly. He could taste sun-gold and heat and scorching winds like burning glory.
“Firebird,” Nicholas said. “More northern, more Russian, not that I am, I was born in Chicago. Don’t ask the question, everyone asks that one, honestly, how old do you think I am?”
Tom promptly shut his mouth on Great Chicago Fire of 1871-related topics. Thought, with secret wild glee: he’s real, he’s real and he’s here, he’s here in my kitchen!
Nicholas licked apple juice from a fingertip, studied him, smiled. The air in the kitchen got hotter. Literally so, obviously. But also thick with awareness: they had been eyeing each other, on and off, for those long months.
And they’d tumbled into this together, lied to bounty hunters, told secrets.
They trusted each other.
Tom, gazing at his firebird, could not recall the last time he’d trusted someone. Someone with no agenda -- at least, no apparent one, aside from self-protection -- and who heard the words he didn’t say, confessions with pain behind in the gaps, and who nevertheless picked out a word or two -- a pronoun, a consideration, compassion that should be commonplace -- and echoed them back as if gazing at treasure.
He wanted to say the thank you. He wanted to apologize for everything he hadn’t done. He wanted to keep Nicholas safe.
He wanted to do something. Like waking up. Like stepping from fog into sun. He had protected Nicholas, at least for now.
He wanted to lean over and feed his firebird another apple-slice, maybe from his own fingertips, maybe skin that could be licked clean.
He managed, “Not over a hundred, then? Your age?” and Nicholas laughed. “It’s not linear and I always hate doing the math ... twenty-three. I think. Your years.”