Neroon held the drum firmly between his thighs, his hands coming down on the taut surface rhythmically. The deep, heavy beat throbbed through his veins. Under his hands the skin of the drum was smooth and warm with friction despite the cool air of the evening, but Neroon's attention was not on these things.
He watched, rapt, the movements of the figure that danced in the ring of light between the fire and the darkness of night. Clothed only in loose black pants, the dancer shone with sweat as his body whirled and snapped through the steps. Though eight other drummers worked alongside Neroon, it seemed to him that the dancer moved to his rhythm alone.
This was no ordinary dance. Marcus danced alone. Nor was this a performance, despite the crescent of people arrayed behind Neroon. No, this was a dance of control, for Marcus's elemental nature was fire, and he was rapidly approaching Ascension.
His clan could not possibly have known how close Marcus was to ascending. If they had, they'd never have allowed him to take part in the exchange that had brought him to Neroon's clan for a year and a day. But until the process began, less than a week before full Ascension, there was no way to determine how close one was to ascending.
At thirty-six years of age Marcus was a little old to be ascending, but certainly not unprecedented. The water-natured typically ascended within their first five years, close to the time in the womb. The air-natured almost always ascended with the transition from child to adult. The earth-natured, like Neroon himself, could ascend at almost any time, but generally did so before their twentieth year.
But the fire-natured, as Marcus was, never ascended before full adulthood. Their elemental nature was too unstable to be controlled until then. Neroon strongly suspected that this delay was evolutionary. Those that ascended quickly burned out -- literally -- and died before they could breed.
Given his untouched status, Marcus's clan had probably felt quite secure lending him to Neroon's for the traditional year and a day. Sexual energy was intimately connected with the element of fire, and thus with the fire-natured. Indulging drove ascension faster. Resisting slowed it. Neroon had known one of his own clan to use celibacy to hold off her Ascension until she was forty years old.
Neroon wondered if Marcus had been attempting the same feat and why, but soon it would be a moot point. All of the fire-natured claimed a mate upon their Ascension. It was another peculiarity of their nature that, after Ascending, they could not manage long without a mate.
If Marcus had been with his own clan he would have had at hand five potential mates selected before he even began ascending. As his nature rose and possessed his body he'd have chosen one of them at his leisure. When his elemental energy expanded beyond the confines of his skin and touched those around him, the chosen one would spark with Marcus's fire and they would come to his Ascension together, and it would bind them as mates.
But Marcus was not with his own clan. He was here, with Neroon's, and there were no pre-selected mates. There was no leisure. Instead there was this frantic dance; a struggle to spend some of the energy burning beneath his skin before it spilled forth.
In the dark, just beyond the firelight, Neroon knew the attempt was in vain. His blood was on fire with the touch of Marcus's nature. His arousal throbbed hot and heavy between his thighs, only driven higher by the pounding drumbeat. He watched Marcus feverishly and knew that even if he'd not desired the man from the moment he set foot in camp, he'd have desired him now.
Despite the fruitlessness of the dance, Neroon sustained the drumbeat with an iron will. He hoped that his desire had made him more susceptible to the touch of Marcus's nature than the others. He hoped that the dance held the touch of the fire-natured away from the rest, even if it did not hold it away from him. He hoped that soon Marcus would stop and reach out to him and choose him for his mate and send the rest away.
But until that happened, he would drum.
Yet eventually his arms grew sore and though he kept up the beat, it hurt. And eventually Marcus grew tired and though he kept up the dance, his steps faltered. And soon the other eight drummers fell away, one by one, and the dancer slowed, step by step, and the waiting clan moved closer, inch by inch.
Finally Marcus surrendered and stood panting for breath, moments from his Ascension. Most of the clan had moved past the ring of drummers, past Neroon, and stood now between him and the dancer.
Setting the drum aside, it came to Neroon that Marcus was not going to make a choice. He would pick no one from the crowd to be his mate. The crowd, too long stoked with tendrils of fire, would make the choice for him. And though the first to claim him would have him for their mate, though the tendrils of power would then snap back from the rest, leaving them sober, still the damage would have been done.
Standing, Neroon wrapped his own nature about himself. At this moment he felt more molten than grounded, but as he strode forward still those who stood between him and Marcus fell back and let him pass. He walked past the last, ignoring them completely.
Neroon stopped a bare half pace before the wild-eyed Marcus. He forced himself to wait a moment, despite the molten feeling burning through his nature. "Marcus," he said at last, and was pleased that there was more of earth than of fire in his voice. Marcus met his gaze, so he went on. "I am your mate," Neroon said. The certainty of it rang through his nature like the tone of a bell; with Marcus's web of power connecting them, they all knew his certainty. "Let me show you," he demanded, but did not move, was careful not to touch.
Marcus studied him for a long moment. In the midst of that regard Neroon felt another thread of Marcus's fire nature, greater than those that touched the others, reach out and twine with his own nature. Neroon was beyond being on fire with need. He was molten with it. But still he held back and waited for the word.
Marcus licked his lips. Neroon's control almost broke, but in the next moment it didn't matter, for Marcus said, "Yes."
Neroon took Marcus's hips in a firm grip and pulled them together. Marcus gasped as the hot ridge of his arousal met Neroon's thinly clothed hardness. Neroon covered Marcus's mouth with his own, immediately claiming a deep, thorough kiss.
Their bodies pressed hard together, both of them shaking with the strength of the need that fired their veins. Neroon could feel Marcus trembling on the edge of Ascension. A sudden surge of possessiveness overwhelmed him. Mine! he thought fiercely, and gathered up the molten energy of his nature and pushed, running it through Marcus as one stream of water runs through another.
Under his hand Marcus's body arched, bucking violently against Neroon. Under his lips Marcus cried out. Neroon has just enough time to gasp for breath before Marcus's nature crested and flared through Ascension.
White-hot energy rolled through Neroon. His every nerve ending lit up with pleasure. He cried out with it, body shaking, and his own nature rose again to meet the tidal wave of Marcus in Ascension.
It seemed like hours before the living heart of his nature and Marcus's settled back into the corner of Neroon's heart, mind, and soul that it normally occupied. When he at last woke again to his mundane senses he found that he was clinging to Marcus even as Marcus was clinging to him. Warm stickiness where he held their hips together told him that, somewhere in the midst of Ascension, they had both come.
Marcus sighed softly and leaned forward to rest his forehead on Neroon's shoulder, exhausted. Gently, Neroon lifted one hand to stroke the soft pelt that crowned Marcus's head. Around them, the crowd was only just dispersing. It must have been less than a minute since he'd stepped forward to claim Marcus.
Instantly Neroon's attention snapped back to the man he held in his arms. "Yes, Marcus."
Marcus raised his head and smiled into Neroon's eyes. "I'm so glad it was you."
Neroon's brow wrinkled. "Then why did you not choose me to begin with?" he asked.
Marcus shrugged. "I didn't want to mate with anyone who was only there because they had to be," he said, looking away.
Neroon turned Marcus back to face him. "I have wanted you," he said intently, "from the moment you first came to this clan. I was prepared to wait on your choice. But," he smiled, "seeing that you would not choose, I was not about to let any of the others have you."
Marcus quirked an eyebrow. "Yours?"
"Mine," Neroon confirmed firmly, and leaned in for a sweet kiss. A slow kiss, undriven by the fire of Marcus's nature.
Marcus met him halfway this time.