THE AURORA CIRCUS is live! Here's the first chapter!
Updated: Mar 16
Hey, hey, hey, readers, writers, and everyone far and wide!
After months (to be honest it has felt like YEARS), of slaving away at my computer to make sure the book is the best it can be, I'm proud to announce that THE AURORA CIRCUS is finally here! *pops champagne* *sprays confetti*
To celebrate, I decided to post the entire first chapter here for you guys to enjoy! Check it out, let me know what you think, and hopefully buy the book when you're done! (Buy links are at the bottom of this post :))
Without further ado, let's get it!
CHAPTER ONE: Bright Blue Flame
Ember Quinn had long since learned to ignore the voices. It was always worse at these times of the year; the souls of the departed were more restless during the world’s quarterly spiritual celebrations.
Please. I need your help.
Ember’s eyebrows furrowed. He clenched his eyes shut tighter like it would will the voice away, even though he knew it was pointless. He didn’t realize he’d fallen back to sleep until he was awoken by a gentle weight on his chest and familiar paws trying to dig holes into his ribs.
“Mac,” he groaned, his voice coming out hoarse.
The tubby cat meowed in response, purring and vibrating like a generator as he scraped his rough tongue against Ember’s jaw.
“Yeah, yeah, I hear ya,” Ember muttered, one hand gently stroking through Mac’s fur, the other searching around the sheets for his phone. An unsurprised snort escaped him when he saw one missed call from his mother. The screen went blank after a while of inactivity, showing his palm underneath. He dropped the device back on his bed with a sigh and pet his cat until he felt more alive.
Flashes of the dreams he’d had the previous night flew behind his eyelids each time he blinked, making his heart race. At times like these, he never could tell when dreams were his or if they were illusions from the departed pleading for help.
He slid out of the sheets, Mac cradled in his arms, and had barely taken three steps toward the bathroom when a knock sounded on his front door. His pulse hammered away like that of a frightened mouse.
He walked slowly to the front door, as if moving as sluggishly as possible would prevent the inevitable. Mac meowed, rubbing the side of his head furiously against Ember’s jaw. The knock sounded again, and he winced.
“Ember?” The voice was familiar. They always were. “Please, I need your help.”
Ember swallowed. Cleared his throat. “No. I can’t help you. I’m sorry.”
He waited, even though he knew they were long gone. It shouldn’t have been a surprise the first time Ember had realized he had a choice in this; he could just say no and that was that. It certainly made things easier. But there were billions of departed souls all over the world, and Ember was scraped raw from saying no.
He’d barely made it back to his bedroom when another knock sounded. His settling heart rate immediately kicked back up.
“E-Ember? Can you please help me?”
“No. I can’t. I’m sorry.”
He made it back to his bedroom after that without incident.
He pretended not to hear the next knock.
By the time he made it to the station, Ember was mentally exhausted and about ready for the day to be over.
Uchenna was already at their guard cubicle, her tall, fat frame warmly tucked in a lovely dark grey coat lined with faux furs. He switched off his music and removed his earphones, answering her greeting smile with a feeble one of his own.
“How do you not get cold?” she asked, gesturing at his faded jean jacket, the only thing he’d thrown over his flimsy work uniform. She held up a hand before he could respond, “I know, I know. You ‘run hotter than normal’” – sarcasm dripped from the finger quotes – “yeah, yeah. Right. Sure. I mean, sounds fake, but okay.”
“How you feeling today, Em? You just missed Jed and Kay.”
Jed and Kay had the night shift before them, the unlucky souls.
“I’m dead. Literally, the walking dead. I want sleep. And TV. And my cat.”
Uchenna laughed, pulling her shoulder-length braids up into a tight ponytail. “You slacker. You just got here.”
“And I’d rather not be here.”
She laughed again, and Ember felt a bit more like himself for helping to accomplish that, even though the world still seemed fuzzy around the edges.
“Got any plans for the rest of the weekend, then?” she asked as she turned away, taking off her coat to hang on one of the hooks lining the wall.
She’d wound a silk black scarf through her belt loops instead of a belt and tied it into a cute little bow at her right hip. The simple touch to the uniform made it seem like she wasn’t dressed for work at all. Ember couldn’t count on all his fingers how many times he’d asked her if she’d ever wanted to be a model.
“You should know by now what I’m doing,” Ember replied, shrugging off his jacket and hanging it next to hers. “My mum’s already tried to call me three times this morning.”
“Jeez, really?” Uchenna laughed. “Are they ever going to let you skip the traditional stuff, just once?”
“The answer is always going to be no. You know how religious my family is.”
“Yeah, and they apparently still don’t know how not religious you are.”
“When has that ever mattered?”
“True,” Uchenna laughed. Her lips curved into a smile that was almost accusatory. “You didn’t respond in the group chat –”
“When do I ever?”
She smacked him playfully on the arm. “If you did, then you would know the rest of us are going to celebrate the Rebirth at Em-Caelestis. If you decide this season’s finally going to be the time you skip the religious stuff, you’re welcome to join us. It’s apparently going to be big this year.”
“Isn’t it big every year?” Ember replied dryly. At Uchenna’s raised eyebrow, he blushed.
“Fine, I’ll keep my options open. Maybe Mac will try to kill me in my sleep and I’ll have to rethink my life choices.”
Uchenna laughed. “Knowing Mac, that cat will kill you if you’re not careful. No doubt there’s a demon hidden underneath all that fluff.”
“I’m still alive, so I must be doing something right.”
Uchenna’s laughter followed them to their posts.
“The train arriving on Platform 2 is the international service from Vixcera. Please board this train for journeys toward Tertius and Geelum.”
The passengers approached, signaled by the sounds of varying footsteps along with boxes and suitcases dragging along the seamless tiled floors. Ember kept a close eye on them as they waved their wrists over the scanners; the gates beeped and swung open at the prompt so long as they had money loaded onto their scan band. Instances of people tagging behind others was quite common during the weekends, thinking they could slip away without being caught because of the large crowd and busy hour. It was the main reason the walls of the train station were lined with premo, a substance made from magic, ironically, to prevent magic users from abusing their abilities to get through the gates.
A group of colorful teenage girls drew Ember’s attention. From where he stood resting casually against the wall, he could almost feel their nervous energy radiating to his side of the walkway. They glanced between Ember and Uchenna and decided Ember was probably less of a threat. Uchenna’s expression and posture screamed business, while Ember, for the life of him, could never manage to look sterner than a wet, angry kitten. It was probably the dimples.
Moving to the gates closest to him, the first girl scanned herself in successfully. Before the second girl went through, the last girl latched onto her, dashing through the gates before they shut for the next passenger.
Ember sighed as he briskly made his way toward them, blocking their path.
“Scan bands, please?” he asked, crossing his arms in an attempt to appear more threatening.
The girls glanced at each other, and the culprit in question looked close to bursting into tears. Orange and Silver Hair lifted their hands, the contrast of the pale blue-grey of the plastic cuff wrapped around their wrists sharp against the dark brown of their skin. Green Hair focused her gaze on some random spot on the floor. She wrung her hands together, and the movement made light catch on the silver and green metal entwined around her left wrist, the material sunken so deeply into the skin it could have been a part of her. The metal was cracked in places, a tribute to the Freedom Movement winning the fight for the equality of magic users six years ago.
Ember’s left wrist itched with phantom discomfort, as was usual whenever he saw the clipping of a magic user, and he resisted the urge to tug down the cuff of his shirt. The girl noticed him staring at the clipping and grew nervous, using her right hand to hide it. He knew, though it’d been some time since the worldwide acceptance of the medeis, some cotidian were still hateful and ignorant.
Silver Hair took charge, explaining in one breath, “We’re so sorry, sir, she forgot her band at home and we were already on the train and there was literally no time to go back and get it we promise not to do it again.” Her chest heaved almost dramatically when she was done.
Ember ignored his mother’s voice screaming in his head that he was way too soft, as he said to Green Hair, “Please, don’t do it again. If you’re getting on another train, I suggest you buy a new scan band for yourself because not everyone is going to be as lenient as I am. I highly doubt you want to pay the fine.”
“Oh, thank you! Thank you, sir! This means a lot to us, thank you!” the girl gushed, tears in her eyes as she nodded her head so hard Ember was afraid it would fall off. “I’ll buy one, I promise! As soon as we get to the desks. Thank you so much again!”
“Yeah, you do that. Try and stay out of trouble, okay?” Ember said, biting back a smile at their relieved expressions.
They nodded and thanked him profusely again before disappearing into the throng of people, hopefully to purchase said scan band at the required tills.
Ember wasn’t surprised to find a frown of disapproval on Uchenna’s face when he returned to his post. He shrugged helplessly as she shook her head fondly, used to his antics by now.
It took thirty minutes for the platform to clear, and this was just from one train. They barely had five minutes of reprieve when the robotic voice announced another train arriving.
Fifteen more trains until I can go home. Rather than watching the slowly ticking hands of the clock, Ember thought counting the trains made time go by much faster. As the hours passed, he thought about what he needed to do after his shift, and his stomach dropped when he remembered his mother’s missed calls. While he loved spending time with his family, he hated traveling with a furious passion. Why couldn’t the Goddess have blessed him with the ability to teleport? That would have been a much better deal than talking to dead people.
It was during one of the five-minute reprieves that he saw her.
The strange woman’s form was ethereal: pale, completely see-through, yet strikingly three-dimensional. Her monochrome skin was decorated with several silvery etchings, which seemed to float out of her like eerie projected tattoos. She was walking toward him from the direction of the platforms, her steps measured and slow.
Ember’s chest heaved in desperate breaths. He couldn’t move, couldn’t speak.
The spectre wore a warm smile that did nothing to calm his racing heart. He braced himself as her hand stretched out toward him, fingers brushing his cheek and –
– he’s studying a flier in his hands. It’s black, with a fancy blue font that seems to glitter off the page. Ermers decorate the edges, swimming around like they’re trapped underneath the surface. The Aurora Circus! It reads, Live at Em-Caelestis –
– he’s being spun out from an embrace, his breath rushing out of his lungs in exhilaration, until barely the tips of his and the stranger’s fingers are touching. Blue fire erupts at the slight touch, enveloping both their hands up to their wrists. Ember’s breath catches for a second, before he’s suddenly pulled back into that embrace, pressed up against a hard chest –
– a girl and a boy, no older than ten and six respectively, are watching him warily from the other side of a train –
– snow, so much snow. He’s riding on a snowmobile, the rumble of the engine like the purr of a giant cat in the silence. There’s another mobile next to him, where he can make out the shine of familiar wavy, long black hair escaping from the back of the helmet –
– he’s running in snow-covered land surrounded by bare trees and tall mountains. He slides down a slope into what looks like a dried-up lake, spotting the lights of a building in the distance.
The facility, he thinks, except his body and his thoughts don’t feel like his own.
He gasped in a desperate lungful, reflexively trying to fight the hands clutching at his shoulders.
“Ember, calm down, it’s me!” The sound of Uchenna’s voice registered, and he fell weakly against the wall behind him. Somehow, he’d ended up seated on the floor. “Are you okay, Em? You just … O’sera, you just collapsed. Gave me a good fright.”
Ember swallowed; his throat was painfully dry.
“I’m …” he trailed off. He was trembling.
“I’m going to call the Emergency Serv –”
“No, don’t!” Ember interrupted vehemently, and Uchenna pulled back a little at his tone.
“I’m fine,” he tried, in a calmer voice.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, just … I think I might be coming down with something.” He struggled to his feet.
“Do you want to call it a day? I’m sure Yinye can come in early. She won’t mind.”
“Yes, I …” He paused, cleared his throat again. “I think that would be best.”
“Are you sure you’re okay? Do you want me to come with you?” Uchenna scrutinized his expression. Her dark brown skin was almost ashen with worry.
“I think I just need to sleep it off.” He sounded so tired. He was so tired.
“If you’re sure,” Uchenna pressed, her dark eyes trying to probe into his soul.
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll, um, text you. When I get home.”
“You should come out for drinks with us later. We don’t head to Em-Caelestis until tomorrow; perhaps you can stay over with one of us and we can all travel together?”
Uchenna didn’t look convinced. Ember was still standing there, until she shooed him.
“Go on, I can manage on my own before Yinye gets here. I’ll send her a text and let the boss know.”
Ember walked to the guard cubicle on autopilot, slipping on his jacket and putting in his earphones. His house wasn’t too far from the station, so he always walked to work and back.
The sun had only just risen when he’d arrived for his shift but was now nearly overhead. Bushes decorating the employee entrance to the station bloomed with fresh greenery and baby flowers. Technically, the first day of spring wasn’t till the Rebirth on Sunday, but the touch of the season was already evident in the air.
The minute he unlocked his front door, Mac, meowing loudly, came to rub his body against Ember’s legs. Needing the comfort, Ember picked him up as he shut the door, collapsing against it. Mac’s body began to vibrate from the intensity of his purring, and Ember hugged him close, his chest warming with affection. The cat rubbed against his throat, managing to calm some of Ember’s nerves. He noticed then that he hadn’t even put his music on.
The departed souls never appeared to him physically without his consent. They were also always real-looking: three-dimensional and vibrant with color and energy like they were still alive. Not only had the woman lacked depth and color, like a phantom, she’d appeared without warning, had shown him things –
Visions, his mind whispered, which he ignored. No one could predict the future, not even the departed. They could only see the different threads, the potential pathways a person could take, but not the choices themselves. What she’d shown him could have been anything, could have been nothing, could have been bait to rope him into helping her –
Like the handsome man with the long black hair, the two of them dancing –
Or the black flier with the circus – the freaking Aurora Circus –
Ember buried his face in Mac’s fur, fighting off the fear and panic. Why had she appeared to him? How had she appeared to him? Weren’t there supposed to be rules to all this? Ember had spent years living by those rules.
Then again, the rules merely existed in his head, a safety net he’d immediately clutched the second his mother had noticed a pattern.
There was a tentative knock on the door. “Please –”
“No!” Ember yelled, smashing a fist against the wood. Mac whimpered at the sound, tearing away from his arms and darting into the kitchen. “Oh no, Mac, wait, I’m sorry. That wasn’t about you.”
Ember couldn’t stay here. He found it ironic that the departed always came to his home, where he was supposed to be safe, where he was supposed to be alone –
Suddenly, the fact that he could say no felt meaningless. Ember turned around, fumbling for the door handle and then he was back in the sunlight, inhaling the cool air. Mac immediately ran out of the house the second he spied an opening. The first time he’d run out like that, Ember had panicked, thinking Mac couldn’t tolerate his presence and would never return. But his soul had mended itself when Ember found him kneading at his chest the next morning, his bedroom window opened a bit wider than he’d left it.
He locked his front door and began heading to town. He might as well do his grocery shopping now, and then he was going to sit in the nearest coffee/bookshop mashup until sundown, with the intent to get lost in a world that wasn’t his own.
You’ll have to come back home eventually.
Ember ignored the thought, bringing out his phone for something to do. The City Center was a twenty-minute walk away, and he didn’t want to be left alone with his thoughts. He went on the playlist composed entirely of songs from his favorite pop band, Blissful, and pressed play. The voicemail icon on his phone was blinking, along with notifications showing several missed calls from his mother. It was a struggle not to roll his eyes. Carrie Quinn was a walking ball of stress every time a spiritual celebration or other family gathering loomed, and she never failed to try and transfer that stress to literally everyone around her.
He clicked on the voicemail.
“Are you all right, Ember?” his mother’s voice, soft and worried, cut abruptly through the sweet melody of Blissful’s lead singer Jeani singing about true love. “Why aren’t you answering your phone? I’ve been trying to reach you all morning. If there’s a problem, or something came up, please let me know. You haven’t told me what your plans are for coming home? If we’re all going to make it to the Rebirth on Sunday, then you really should be getting here latest by tonight. I’ve already called Kamren, and she and Pemma are expecting us in Em-Caelestis tomorrow, which reminds me –”
Ember clicked out of the message, not bothering to listen to the rest. The last thing he wanted to deal with right now was his mother’s fussing. Jeani’s voice returned, her soft tones only barely managing to soothe his nerves. He focused on the voices of the girls in his ears, along with placing one foot in front of the other as he continued on his way to the Center.
The City Center was alive with its usual activities. People were singing, some dancing, and others advertising their events and businesses by shoving fliers at unsuspecting victims who made the mistake of walking into their path.
Ember’s eyes skimmed over images moving on the sides and tops of the various shopping complexes, advertising everything from the latest fashion to puppies waiting to be adopted.
He was glad the Center was designed for pedestrians; the paved walkways were no less than ten meters wide, made from the finest grey stone, and a small fountain or patch of greenery came up in the middle every couple steps. The ridiculous amount of space proved useful when Ember wasn’t in the mood to be swallowed up by a crowd. A large square sat where the four walkways converged, boasting comfortable wooden benches flanked by small artificial trees. The leaves were folded into their branches waiting for a shiny, summer’s day to unfold and provide shade.
“– will be performing in Em-Caelestis this Rebirth!”
The source of the voice boomed from the hologram of a large projected screen floating right above the square. He spotted the celebrity the voiceover was referring to, before looking away, uninterested. He was so jittery, still shaken from the encounter with the spectre that he didn’t realize the direction his body was automatically steering him in until he was standing in front of the dance studio.
His breathing was fast and shallow. The posters pasted onto the floor-to-ceiling windows showed off the studio’s facilities: lyra, silks, trapeze, ballet, waltz. One only had to name the type of dance and they had it. The desire to go in there and forget about the world – just once – was so sharp it hurt.
Just once, he repeated to himself, but his body refused to move.
“Going to come inside this time, then?”
The familiar voice startled Ember out of his predicament. The tall, curvy woman standing beside him was dressed in a white leotard speckled with shimmering stones, her brown skin smooth and glowing, kinky curls pulled into a tight bun, a backpack slung over one shoulder. For a second, her frame was enveloped in bright swirls of blue and white, but her aura was gone on Ember’s next blink.
He blinked again, rapidly, just to make sure he had his ability under wraps.
“I was just looking,” he said, already turning and walking away, each step heavier than the last.
“You’re always ‘just’ looking,” she called after his retreating form. “You’ll be so much happier when you accept what you want and give in!”
Ember ignored her, reminding himself of the reason he’d come to town.
His shopping was completed on autopilot in less than thirty minutes. When he was outside once again, it was busier than it had been a few minutes earlier, and he’d shoved all thoughts of dancing back down to the depths of his mind where they belonged.
Welcome to Des-Axima, Ember thought with an odd mix of fondness and resentment, the capital city of the largest Kingdom in the world, where people in the Center multiply like flies each time you blink.
He’d stopped his music and was searching for a different playlist when he heard an alluring melody. Pulling his earphones off, he was greeted with the soft tinkle of piano keys, the vibrating thrum of an electric guitar, and a hypnotic, genderless voice belting out soothing notes. The music pulled him in like a siren song until he was standing right at the front of a gathering of city-goers. The song, this close, seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere at once. There were teenagers freaking out, fanning themselves with their hands and bouncing on their feet.
Three people were in the center of the rapidly growing circle: two men and a woman. One of the men was down on one knee, fiddling with the straps on his thigh-high, black velvet boots. His slim, long nails were painted with sparkly black polish, drawing attention as they reflected the light. Ember’s stomach lurched with uncomfortable awareness at the sight of the long, dark hair hiding most of the man’s face.
The woman, flanked by the men, spread her arms wide. Something on her left hand glinted – sunken cracked silver and orange metal coiled around her wrist. A quick glance at her companions’ bared left wrists showed they were magic users as well, except their clippings were silver and black.
Black. That was a stage five classification, the most powerful a medeis could get according to the previous government.
“Hello, people!” the medeis woman shouted. She was tall and fat with cool dark brown skin, a huge smile on her face. “Welcome to the unregistered act of two of the finest performers from the Aurora Circus!”
The audience whooped and hollered in delight at the announcement.
Ember’s eyes widened, and his breath caught at the last two words. He automatically took a step back, and then forward when he realized there was nowhere to go, the crowd around him like a living, breathing, immovable brick wall.
“I love you, Pyro!” a boy behind him yelled, his voice high and squeaky.
Several cheers of agreement followed his proclamation, and the kneeling guy got to his feet, looked right at Ember, and winked.
Ember’s cheeks burned. The medeis ran his hand through his thick locks, pushing them away from his face in a move so effortlessly sexy it sent the butterflies in Ember’s stomach fluttering. Full pink lips curved up in a knowing grin, and Ember found his cockiness as attractive as he did irritating.
The woman and the other man pulled away, leaving Pyro alone in the center. Everyone seemed to stop breathing when the medeis lifted his left hand and snapped his fingers. His hand lit up in a brilliant orange flame that had them all going wild.
“Pyro! Pyro! Pyro!” they chanted, clapping in rhythm while he gave them a dramatic bow.
“You flatter me!” he yelled over the noise. His voice was silky smooth, and the sound sent shivers dancing all along Ember’s spine.
Pyro snapped the fingers of his other hand, grinning devilishly as the people gave him what he wanted, drowning out everything with their hoots. The dark line of kohl across his upper lids made his brown eyes shimmer like molten gold. Ember’s breath stopped when those eyes met his once again, and he could only resume breathing when Pyro wasn’t looking at him anymore.
Pyro thrust his hands up, flinging the flames from his skin and into the air. The balls of fire hovered, then flew down to dance across his shoulders, slide down his chest and legs, and settle at his feet. Someone screamed so hard they swooned, nearly falling to the ground in a dead faint. A few of her friends caught her before she could fall, and she promptly resumed her screeching.
“Whoa, please try to stay conscious,” Pyro laughed. “I mean, what’s the point of the magic if you’re not going to be awake to see it?”
The people laughed, then caught their breaths collectively as the flames shot up from his legs to his hands in a blur of orange light. Pyro played with the twin balls of fire like they were extensions of his body. Each time his gaze met with Pyro’s, Ember’s heartbeat stuttered.
That cocky smile graced Pyro’s lips again when he noticed how much Ember was staring, and Ember blushed furiously and tore his gaze away. He couldn’t help but glance at him again a second after, drawn like a moth to a flame, and time seemed to freeze when he found the other man already watching him.
Fiery eyes burning with intensity regarded him from underneath lowered lashes, before Pyro skipped up to Ember and joined their lips in a light kiss, so light Ember wasn’t sure their lips had actually touched. A bright flame burst forth from Pyro’s mouth when he pulled away, the flames licking at Ember’s lips in a fiery hot kiss.
The crowd’s screams could have smashed windows. Ember touched his still-warm lips, dazed. He was almost sure he was imagining it when Pyro walked up to him a second later, bowing dramatically and holding his right hand out.
“May I have this dance?”
“Oh, now you ask?” Ember responded. The crowd around him oohed, and he flushed.
Pyro at least had the grace to look contrite. “Sorry.”
He made to pull his hand away, and Ember was speaking before his brain could process the words. “I didn’t say no.” Pyro’s expression mirrored Ember’s surprise, and he immediately tried to take the words back, “I mean, I-I don’t know – I mean, I couldn’t –”
Pyro straightened, those full lips curving in that damning smile as he moved forward until they were inches apart. His left hand stroked over Ember’s shoulder and down his arm, until his thumb and forefinger were wrapped intimately around Ember’s wrist through the thin material of his jacket. Ember wished he could somehow vaporize the jacket so he could feel the warmth of that skin without any barriers.
“Yes,” Pyro whispered. “I believe you can.”
And Ember was lost.
He was relieved of his bags by several eager hands in the crowd and let himself be pulled to the center.
“Just follow my lead,” Pyro whispered.
“I know how to dance,” Ember replied, voice a little sharp.
Pyro laughed, delighted. “Oh?” The word held the weight of a challenge.
The medeis pulled away before holding his hand out like he was a prince at a ball and Ember was his consort. His smile softened into something more intimate. Ember’s own lips curved, and he suddenly couldn’t meet Pyro’s gaze, watching his own hand lift, though he didn’t know how, because it felt like his soul had left his body.
The tips of his fingers brushed against Pyro’s, and fire immediately burst out of the latter’s fingertips, engulfing their palms in bright blue flame. The déjà vu hit Ember like a freight train. Pyro looked just as surprised.
Before he could ponder what it meant, Pyro had recovered, gently pulling Ember into his arms. One hand burned an imprint into Ember’s lower back, while the other slipped up over his shoulder and down his arm until their hands connected once more, the blue flame igniting at their touch. Ember didn’t know if it was because of the fire, but Pyro’s hands were overly warm.
“Show me what you’ve got then, handsome,” the medeis teased in a husky whisper, and
Ember had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep himself from grinning wide.
They began to move, and Ember’s body immediately adjusted, slipping seamlessly into movements he’d thought he’d long forgotten. The edges of the crowd shifted, making space for them in every direction they danced and twirled, eyes locked on each other. The challenge still dancing in Pyro’s dark eyes made Ember’s pulse race, until their dancing felt like a battle all on its own, their bodies pressed so intimately Ember didn’t know where he ended and Pyro began.
Their movements grew sharper, more passionate. Every time their palms touched, that ball of blue flame enveloped their hands and wrists.
Pyro spun him out until barely the tips of their fingers were brushing, teasing the crowd with the flickering flame, and then, with a sharp tug, pulled him back into his embrace so they were knocked chest to chest. Their chests rose and fell with rapid breaths, gazes still locked, the rest of the world fading away. The fire-user smelled warm and sweet, like cocoa butter and vanilla.
Adrenaline burned through Ember’s veins like a euphoric drug, and his gaze helplessly dropped to Pyro’s mouth. His hand tightened where it clutched at Pyro’s shoulder, the other on his hip, and a not-so-pleasant mix of nervousness and anticipation fluttered in his stomach as Pyro’s face drew closer until their lips were a hair’s breadth away. The sides of their noses brushed, and the touch ignited bright blue fire that enveloped their bodies from head to toe. They jumped apart in surprise, and the flames dissipated into the air once they were no longer in contact.
The screams and applause rushed into Ember’s ears like someone had suddenly turned up the volume of the rest of the world. Pyro looked as stunned as Ember, only coming out of it when the other performers distracted him. Ember had his groceries returned to him.
What just happened?
He returned to himself when the woman from the trio shoved a flier at his face.
“We’re performing in Em-Caelestis on Sunday!” she said, and then she moved even closer to him, her voice suddenly an intimate whisper in his mind, Nod if you’re okay. Shake your head if that was too much.
Ember couldn’t help but glance in Pyro’s direction. The performer was surrounded by a horde of fans, and Ember’s stomach sank with a mix of relief and disappointment.
Ember’s attention snapped to the woman in front of him. Her expression was amused.
“Sorry about the head voice. Force of habit. I’m going to assume you’re okay …”
“Does he … does he do that a lot?” Ember managed to ask. His lips tingled. “Mock-kiss strangers and … and –”
“– and dance with them like they’re the center of his universe?” Her tone turned serious.
“No. He’s never done that before.”
“Oh.” Ember slyly glanced at Pyro again.
“Uh huh.” She noticed him staring, and Ember inwardly thanked the Goddess for his brown skin and how it hopefully hid most of the heat warming his cheeks. She wagged her eyebrows at him, pressing the flier into one of his hands. “Hope we see you at the show.”
Ember began to walk away, helplessly glancing in Pyro’s direction again, stumbling when he noticed the other man watching him. Emboldened by Ember’s look, sensual half-lidded eyes trailed from Ember’s head to his toes in a blatant onceover, dark eyes glimmering with heat.
The look lit Ember’s skin up like a struck match, and he turned and practically ran for it.
He didn’t look at the flier until he was safely hidden behind a row of bookshelves in Noveltea, the smell of hot beverages and sweet pastries, and the sound of low conversation helping to keep him grounded. He glanced down, eyes falling on black paper with glittery blue text, air mermaids swimming in the background –
Ember dropped the flier like he’d been burned.
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