Generations ago, shifters -- many with magic powers -- were accepted throughout Emylnor. But a war with the nearby dragon nation bred concern, and though Emylnor's forces beat back the invasion, the shifters retreated into hiding.
Akton is a weasel shifter who seems to have no magical talents. When he is hunted, Talfryn joins the fight, finally able to flex his salamander flame powers. But while they make a good team, the thrill quickly wears off when they uncover recruitment orders. A shifter named Basil is building an army.
Someone has to warn Queen Ylenia before Basil can launch Emylnor into another war. When Akton and Talfryn volunteer to deliver the information to her, they have no intention of getting deeply involved with the fight -- or each other. But to stop Basil, they need to learn to trust each other completely, and fast. Or all of Emylnor will burn ...
The door shut, they turned to the fireplace. Talfryn breathed out and sat on the floor in front of it, and after a moment Akton lowered himself down next to him. Their knees touched, but neither of them moved, and somehow that was comforting.
"Well?" asked Akton. "Going to show off your fire powers?"
Talfryn smiled slightly.
"I never even showed off for Glenna," he said. "But this is how I've been so adept at starting our fires." He raised a hand, and a little flame danced to life in his palm. Akton stared at it as it twisted into several random shapes, then returned to normal. Talfryn tilted his hand and the fire blazed over and around, across his palm, over the backs of his fingers, circling like a trained animal.
"Fuck," said Akton. He'd never seen anything like this before. Talfryn was powerful in a way he'd never been able to realistically consider. "You kept this a secret your whole life? I would've showed off."
Talfryn halted the flame, then, with a flick of his hand, sent it shooting across the few feet to where the firewood was stacked. It took root there and grew, much faster than a normal flame, but stayed in place. Akton looked down when Talfryn took his hand, palm filled with normal warmth and nothing remotely burning hot.
"Keeping secret is how we survive," said Talfryn. His touch was stirring so much within Akton, he felt like he might explode. Desire, excitement, processing this new reality all pushed in on him and he leaned closer, touched back, drew his fingers over Talfryn's wrist. "You know that."
"Yes." Even though his entire family knew, Akton had never felt like they hadn't been on his side for this. None had ever spoken of it. His sister's wife hadn't even minded when searching out a way to have a child. But the rest of the world, well -- it was a harsher place. Even Talfryn's peaceful little town panicked over the known presence of shifters.
"It's not surprising, then, that Basil would be able to recruit so many," said Talfryn. "His army suggests a place where shifter presence is not only allowed, but encouraged. We didn't even feel that level of safety with each other."
"Now ..." said Akton, wanting things to change. They'd have to, or he'd never be able to make it all the way to Ylenia with Talfryn. "I want to trust you with this. Only my family knows I'm a weasel, but most haven't seen me shifted."
"Weasel, that's it," said Talfryn, chuckling. "Would have guessed eventually. I bet you're cute."
Akton pulled away and grimaced. Cute. Of course.
"You're probably hideous," he said, but Talfryn was laughing now.
"Of course I am. I'm a salamander. Together or you first?"
Salamander. Akton wouldn't have guessed. And something so small -- he'd been half dreading Talfryn admitting he was a dragon or something equally large and powerful, something to dwarf him. It seemed at times that he was so small and insignificant, just a tiny little weasel, while everyone else he ran across was a wolf or deer. But salamander seemed to suit Talfryn.
"Together," said Akton, and shifted before he could think about what he was doing. His worldview grew closer to the ground, his senses heightened even more, and then he was looking up at Talfryn, who apparently hadn't been ready to go immediately.
Talfryn blinked and shifted, down until he was almost at Akton's eye level. Yellow spots on black skin flashed before Akton's eyes, and then Talfryn was next to him, examining him closely, nudging Akton's fur with his face.
Akton resisted the urge to pull away and they scurried through their discarded clothing, getting a feel for each other in their shifted forms. Talfryn smelled different, although not completely so -- Akton realized now that there had been an underlying whiff of Talfryn's shifted form that he'd never noticed until now. It was interesting, their vastly different skins rubbing against each other.
There was something comfortably vulnerable and intensely intimate about this, full exposure in a way that they hadn't shared when naked. This went deeper than that. Every moment more Akton spent pressing himself up against Talfryn was a moment he felt more deeply bonded with him. It should have scared him, but instead he enjoyed the feeling. It was like everything he'd ever been wanting but couldn't put a name to. It was right, like finding an elusive solution to a nagging problem.