Ethari yanked his shirt off in irritation and crumpled the fabric, staring down at the acid burn he’d just made on it, front and center, right where everyone would be able to see it. I’m such a klutz. Come on, hands! I’ve got customers to delude into thinking I’m competent here!
He hadn’t been wearing his forge-sleeves for the etching work, since they only protected against heat and he hadn’t wanted to risk spilling acid on the protective rune. So of course, I spilled acid on my good shirt instead.
Ethari let go of his internal rant, though, when he remembered why he’d been wearing that good shirt in the first place: he was expecting a special guest shortly.
Special to Ethari, that is. He hadn’t quite gotten the courage to say how he felt out loud yet. But Runaan was an eerily perceptive elf. When he came by the shop, he’d study Ethari for several seconds without speaking, wearing that pouty serious expression of his while his bright turquoise eyes seemed to drill straight into Ethari’s breathless soul. Ethari suspected there was a good chance the assassin was at least somewhat aware of Ethari’s feelings for him.
But he’s not here yet. And I still need a new shirt. And I should tidy up the shop a bit—
Thrown off by his own eager anticipation, Ethari tried to do two things at once and ended up heading from his work area to the main shop with his acid-scarred shirt still wadded in one hand. A quick glance told him the coast was clear—no Runaan, no other customers—so he tossed his burnt shirt over his shoulder and began to tidy up, arranging his shining wares, straightening display stands—
A pale shadow moved in the corner of his eye, slowly and deliberately. Ethari’s adrenaline shot up, and he turned sharply.
High cheekbones supported a pair of dark blue nose stripes beneath blazing turquoise eyes, in a face framed by soft white side tails bound in silver cuffs. Dark horns kinked above the elf’s head, similarly cuffed in hammered silver. Long, slender arms sloped from broad, powerful shoulders. His visitor’s wiry body was tightly encased in navy and teal, and legs that had no business being that long met the floor in a pair of thigh-high leather boots.
Runaan was already in the shop. Had been in the shop the whole time. He’d been lurking in a shadowy corner next to a rack of swords and Ethari’s gaze had simply slid right past him. The realization was both alarming and impressive, and Ethari’s heart rate leapt. I was specifically looking for him, and I still didn’t see him. How does he do that?
“Runaan! I… didn’t see you there. I didn’t expect you for another half an hour. I’m…” Ethari felt the weight of the taller elf’s gemstone gaze and suddenly became very aware that he was standing bare-chested in front of him. “I spilled acid on my shirt,” he finished lamely.
“You’re not hurt?”
“Just the shirt. And my pride.”
Runaan stalked forward with slow deliberation, his catlike grace silencing his footsteps. “Let me see.”
Ethari swallowed hard. How foolish he must seem. A craftsman who couldn’t even keep himself tidy, bumbling around his own shop in a state of half-undress like it was his private bedroom instead of his place of business. He dropped his eyes as he pulled the ruined shirt from his shoulder and wordlessly held it out to the assassin.
Runaan’s piercing eyes dropped to the proffered item, then returned to Ethari’s face. Slowly, he reached out a gloved hand and accepted the shirt. Then his arm pivoted smoothly to the side. He dropped it to the middle of the shop floor without looking.
The assassin’s eyes danced across Ethari’s exposed skin. “I didn’t mean the shirt.”
Ethari gasped through his nose and felt a hard rush of blood to his cheeks. Oh.
Runaan stepped closer, but just as Ethari took in a second gasp of anticipation, Runaan tipped his horns with a smile and sidestepped him, beginning a slow measured circuit around him. The room suddenly seemed very hot, and Ethari became very aware of just how fast he was breathing. How his inhalations lifted his shoulders and expanded his chest. He could feel the hot weight of Runaan’s gaze like a sunbeam through a lens as it trailed across the circular lavender markings on his shoulder and began to scorch its way across his back.
Ethari didn’t dare move. He had no idea what was happening, but he was very intent on not interrupting it. As the assassin circled slowly behind him, Ethari swore he could feel Runaan’s body heat radiating against his bare back. The fact that he had no idea how close Runaan was to him—Ethari couldn’t pick up a single sound from the assassin’s movements—was doing his heart rate no favors. Or all the favors.
After what seemed like hours of delicious suspense, Ethari finally caught sight of Runaan out of the corner of his eye again. The assassin padded silently back around and stood in front of him, wearing an expression of frank admiration.
Runaan’s eyes dropped to the thick planes of muscle that covered Ethari’s chest from his endless hours in the forge. When he finally spoke, his voice brushed against Ethari’s ears like black velvet. “You’re very dedicated to your work.”
Ethari parsed the Moonshadow compliment and dropped his eyes. A small smile tugged at his mouth. “Thank you. I enjoy it very much.”
Runaan’s voice softened further. “It shows,” he breathed.
Ethari’s skin danced with tingles, and his horns sparked with cool delight. He met Runaan’s eyes again and saw in them a molten heat that belied his ramrod-straight spine and formal posture. The assassin respected Ethari’s personal space too much to simply intrude. But he wanted to.
Ethari wanted him to intrude, too. “Give me your hand.”
Runaan raised an inquiring white brow, but he offered his left hand. Ethari turned it in his grip and unfastened the bindings on Runaan’s leather gauntlet with deft fingers, gently stripping it and its accompanying black glove from the assassin’s arm. He held out his hands expectantly for Runaan’s right hand and received it with no further hesitation. In moments, it too was freed of its protective gear.
He held Runaan’s gloves and gauntlets in one hand, swung his arm out to the side, and dropped them on the floor next to his burnt shirt.
Runaan’s eyes flicked down to where they landed. They returned to Ethari’s face, insistent, pulsing with intensity.
Ethari held out his hands again, palms up. Runaan’s eyes glittered for another long moment as he seemed to sieve Ethari’s soul. Then the assassin moved, as smoothly as if he’d always been in motion, resting the backs of his bare hands in Ethari’s palms. Runaan’s hands were warm and strong, his slender fingers bearing a kind of deadly delicacy. Ethari found them fascinating. Runaan hadn’t given him the full weight of his hands, either, still holding back, ready to withdraw if he needed to.
Ethari didn’t want Runaan to withdraw.
“Touch me. It’s okay.” He stepped just close enough for Runaan to reach him and placed the assassin’s warm hands on his bare shoulders, pressing those long, artistic fingers around the top curves of his deltoid muscles. Directing Runaan’s hands made Ethari’s shoulders flex, and Runaan’s sharply indrawn breath paired nicely with his widening eyes.
Ethari pressed harder against Runaan’s hands, then he lifted his free and stood still, barely able to hold Runaan’s burning gaze. His whole body sang with the rhythm of his own heartbeat.
Runaan stared at him as if he were a glorious mystery, but his hands remained in place atop Ethari’s shoulders.
Ethari cupped Runaan’s elbows, pressing so the assassin’s hands never lifted away from Ethari’s shoulders as he stepped closer still. He let his thumbs graze the sides of Runaan’s muscular arms. “Runaan. I want you to.”
The assassin’s expression shifted subtly, and Ethari finally understood what it was like to be lit on fire by the heat of another’s gaze. Runaan’s hands slowly ghosted across Ethari’s skin, tracing the hard edges of his forge-earned musculature with fingers callused from decades of archery, leaving lines of delicate tingles everywhere they touched. Those glorious fingers traced the caps of his deltoids and danced the rising planes of his trapezius. Runaan’s hands cupped the back of Ethari’s neck, and his thumbs encouraged Ethari’s jaw to tilt up so their eyes could meet more directly. The assassin’s eyes searched his face more deeply than Ethari had ever experienced, but the craftsman poured everything he was feeling into his expression, knowing Runaan would read it there.
Runaan did. His warm, callused fingers trailed lightly down Ethari’s throat, down the front of his chest, splaying wide across the hard planes of muscle he found there. Ethari shivered under Runaan’s light touch, inhaling, and his chest rose to meet Runaan’s touch, inviting a firmer contact. His hands fell away from Runaan’s arms, and he stood helplessly lost in the sensation of the assassin’s masterful hands. The pad of Runaan’s thumb trailed along the lower curve of one of Ethari’s pecs, while his other thumb lightly brushed across a taut nipple, causing Ethari to gasp and arch his back.
Ethari’s involuntary reaction drew one from Runaan as well. The assassin hummed in soft appreciation deep in his chest, and a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.
Ethari’s chin lifted, and his eyes rolled shut. His mouth fell open softly as Runaan’s fingers continued to explore his exposed skin, tracing lightly over his ribs, along his intercostal muscles, and down the tense cables of his abdominals. Further soft sounds began to escape Ethari’s mouth as Runaan’s hands slowly made their way to Ethari’s back. The assassin stood so close now that Ethari could definitely feel his body heat radiating against his bare chest. Runaan leaned in toward his ear as if to whisper, but said nothing, breathing through a smile, letting his proximity excite Ethari further, filling his ear with gentle hums as the soft fire of his fingers drew sharp breaths and quiet gasps from Ethari’s lips.
A teasing brush up Ethari’s spine. “Mmm?”
Callused fingers dancing along the bright lines circling his biceps. “Hmm…?”
Pressing against the top curve of his hip bones. “Mmnn.”
At some point, Ethari’s hands found Runaan’s arms again and held on tightly, more for stability than out of any attempt to guide or restrain him. Their wordless voices danced quietly in the empty shop as Runaan held Ethari in the circle of his arms and drew delighted noises from his throat with every soft, deliberate caress.
Finally, Runaan’s warm hands worked their way back to cup Ethari’s face, and he pulled back to find Ethari’s eyes shut.
“Open your eyes, Ethari. There’s nothing to fear. Do you not feel safe with me?”
Ethari dragged his eyes open and focused on Runaan, mere inches from his face. His breathing was delightfully unsteady as he replied, “I-I’m not sure I want to feel safe with you.”
That brought a genuine smile to Runaan’s lips. “You’re as safe with me as you’d like to be.”
Breathless and riding the biggest contact high of his life, Ethari whispered, “Then kiss me, Runaan. I need you to kiss me.”
Runaan’s smile broadened further. “As you wish.” His full lips captured Ethari’s in a soft rush of sensation, and Ethari’s arms wound around Runaan’s neck. Runaan pulled Ethari hard against him, tangling one hand in his thick mop of hair as he tasted the sweetness of Ethari’s mouth.
The soft noises they made together formed a secret duet that left Ethari light-headed when Runaan finally let him breathe again. His hands shook, his knees trembled, and he had to lean into Runaan’s embrace for support. “Don’t let me fall,” he murmured. “I’m a little wobbly.”
“I’ve got you.”
Something in Runaan’s voice made Ethari seek out that blazing turquoise gaze again. Part reassurance, part acceptance, part promise, and part delicious threat, the assassin’s simple phrase wove itself through Ethari’s mind and tangled around his heart.
“You really do, Runaan.” Ethari’s heart teetered on the edge for one final moment before plummeting into those turquoise depths. Anything Runaan wanted, Ethari would eagerly give him. He knew it. And he knew Runaan knew it, too. “…Please, don’t…”
“I won’t,” Runaan said, when Ethari couldn’t find the words.. “You’re too precious to treat lightly, Ethari. I’d never take advantage of you.”
The assassin’s perceptiveness shook Ethari once again, but in the best way, and his arms tightened around Runaan’s neck. He’d never felt safer in his life than he did in that moment, in the arms of a beautiful assassin. “In that case… you’d better kiss me again.”