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With Midwinter blowing in, my life resembled a melting mess.
On the one hand, the sun smiled on my house with Enfys moving in soon. On the other, ice nibbled at my feet as I'd promised to take him to see the ice bears during the celebration, but had yet to tell him I was one of them.
I wiped my clammy hands on my woollen dress as I stared out the window at the cubs building snow sculptures. It was the tip of the iceberg of things I hadn't told him during our eight months of courting.
Enfys and his family hailed from the tropical southern island of Taranau Ynys, an almost two-day flight from Kalbuhr, my beloved but cold northern island city. While his work as a natural programmer took him all over the world, his busy schedule had only allowed him a handful of visits after our first meeting. He had given me one of his communication gadgets, so no matter where he was, we spoke every day, even if only for a minute or two.
Not even those daily conversations could bring me to reveal the secrets eating at me when we were together. Our relationship was too new, and our time together too precious to risk letting them running Enfys off like they had my exes. It had nothing to do with my fear of losing him once he knew the truth. Or so I kept telling myself.
Now, I had mere days before Enfys flew in to stay, and I was no closer to finding the right words to express the way I felt when he was with me, and how deeply it shamed me to have kept this from him for so long. All I had was a desk strewn with crumpled attempts.
I shoved my chair back and dragged myself down the spiral stairs with heavy heart. Might as well do one last check of the house. Then at least that would be perfect when Enfys arrived, even if nothing else would be.
The bedroom had been sorted months ago. While Enfys had insisted the stairs weren't a problem, he had fallen in love with the double tub in the generous en-suite bathroom of my office downstairs. The rooms were of a similar size and easily swapped so Enfys could enjoy a bath without having to cross half the house, or tackle the stairs. Besides, I'd chosen my bedroom because, contrary to Enfys, I was not much of a tub person. The shower room connecting the upstairs rooms had been more than enough for me, and less surface to clean, too.
These last few weeks, I'd spent most of my free time clearing away anything Enfyss could stumble over. He used a cane and echolocation to get around indoors, when his robot wasn't nearby, and could probably move around most obstacles, but it made me feel better to make the house ready for him. To make it a home for him. Even my office.
The house felt better for it, too. I wasn't a sludge by any means, but doing this for Enfyss made me realise how often I left stuff in the middle of the floor. A bag here, a box there, a stool pushed into the middle of the room, that sort of thing. Even now I found several pillows blocking the path to the sofa. I picked them up and put them back where they belonged.
It was still strange to see the gap between the hall and the thick floor-to-ceiling window in the living room where one of my bookcases had stood. I'd moved it into my office to leave room for Enfys' robot. He would have been content to leave it in the hall, like he had during his visits, but the robot was, in a way, his office, and it deserved a dedicated space in the living room.
Something bumped into the window, then slowly slid down. A snowball. Three cubs ran off when they caught sight of me, giggling and screaming. I stared after them until they disappeared deeper into the city. The cheeky shards made me laugh. They reminded me of my own cubs' shenanigans at that age.
Snowflakes put on a wild dancing show in the street as the winds picked it up a notch. Still, the force of any storm within the containment spell covering the city was much milder than the heavy ones often raging above them. By design.
Many generations ago, one of our elders had calculated how much energy it would cost our clan to create a shield that dampened the worst effects of the weather. Turned out, only a tiny portion of our daily energy was enough to stop the need to dress for battle to visit neighbours for some gossip. It had the added benefit of keeping our cubs enjoying the snow far into winter.
If Enfys were here, I'd describe it all to him, from the cheeky cubs and their snow sculptures to the dancing snowflakes. He'd probably insist on going outside the walls in his too-thin bright green coat—insulated linen he called it—laughing that deep belly laugh of his when he'd be blown off his feet. Everything seemed an adventure to him.
I'd given him a proper heat-treated woollen northern island coat on our second meeting, but I had to prompt him to put it on to keep him from freezing to death. Of course, I hadn't yet known that a natural coder like Enfys could easily manipulate the air to create a warm shield around his body.
It hung on the peg next to the door, now, waiting for him to return, to stay...
If he could forgive me.
Bouncing on the balls of my feet, I waited for the door of Enfys' plane to open, wearing the intricate cable dress with blue and purple accents he liked so much under my woollen cloak. He cared little for the colours, since he couldn't see them, but he considered the pattern a secret code he enjoyed trying to decipher.
He cut an impressive and elegant figure when his robot finally lowered him from his plane, despite being dressed in his too-thin coat. Again. His bald dark head glimmered in the sunlight, and his colourful, traditionally tailored, southern tunic and the mainlander leather trousers and boots showed off his lean, wiry frame. Enfys was the most beautiful man I'd ever seen.
The robot crossed the snow-covered plains to reach the southern gates. In truth, none of us had known the contraption was a robot, when he'd landed that first time, over eight months ago. We'd all just stood gaping as what looked like a chest of drawers had detached itself from the plane, carrying Enfys on a platform attached to the back.
His oldest brother had built the robot. It contained everything Enfys needed for work, and it was smooth as ice to get around on. Enfys went nowhere without it. He was going to be shiny as a shard with the place I'd freed up for it in the living room.
Happily bleeping away, the robot hovered a couple of inches above the surface as it carried Enfys towards me. Why Rhew had made it so hail-storming noisy, I would never understand, but Enfys enjoyed the non-conversations the robot seemed to have with him as he worked. It made him smile, and when Enfys smiled, my heart skipped a beat.
"Blessed snow, Tahl," Enfys greeted me in near flawless standard mainland with a melodic southern lilt I never tired of hearing. Nor his native language, even though I barely spoke a word.
His dark voice went straight to my groin, every single time, even though he'd once told me his voice had been rather high before he'd started testosterone treatments.
Even hovering over the ground, my 7-foot built-like-brick frame towered over Enfys' five-eight. The robot reacted by raising up to bring Enfys face to face with me.
It was then that ice nibbled at my feet as reality hit me. I closed my eyes. He was here. To stay. He was really here. But would he still stay after I told him?
Enfys cupped my face with a surprisingly warm and bare hand. His hazel eyes streaked with golden flecks. "What is it, sunshine? Are you cold?"
It was a ridiculous idea, me being cold, but the way Enfys said it described exactly how I felt. I let out a breath as I straightened myself, and wiped my hands on my dress. The longer I postponed, the worse I'd feel. I put my hand over Enfys'. "We need to talk."
Enfys leaned closer and rested his forehead against mine. "You're shaking."
I hadn't even noticed.
"Do we need to sit down for this?"
Well, I hadn't intended to have this conversation out here. "Let's go home."
Enfys smiled. "Home sounds good."
I didn't dare let myself hope. Instead, I led him on his robot through the gates and took a left to where my house—our house now—sat nestled in the south-west corner of the defensive walls, next to the stairs that led to the battlements.
Neither of us spoke. Maybe Enfys was giving me space to think, or maybe he was trying to figure out what was going on with me, I didn't know, but the silence wasn't entirely uncomfortable.
Not until a set of tiny voices rang out behind me, yelling, "Grumper! Grumper!" And the next moment I had two young cubs hanging off my cloak.
My heart had nowhere to go, but it still tried to crawl out of my chest as I stared at Enfys, waiting for a reaction. I ignored my son's muttered, "Oh, blasted snow."
Enfys seemed confused, but smiled brightly in the general direction of my grandcubs' squeals as he knelt on his platform. "Bright day, young nippers."
Both stopped swinging off my cloak and retreated into their father's arms, silently staring at Enfys with wide eyes.
Bauhn, my spitting image, tilted his head at me with a rueful smile and whispered, "Sorry, Grumper." He seemed unaware that Enfys' hearing was almost as good as ours.
My knees went weak and my heart raced. I tried to speak, but no matter how I swallowed against the tightness, I could not get a word out.
"Tahl, sunshine? What's going on?"
There was worry in Enfys' voice, but I couldn't face him. I needed to get away from here. I needed...
Bauhn reached out to steady me as I stumbled, but I slapped his hand away, and ran.
Haihg found me soon after on the battlements, staring at Enfys' plane. My bear mate and clan leader was a couple of inches taller than me, bulkier, too. The red of his wild curls was fading, and there were definite hints of grey in his beard, but even at almost fifty he was as gorgeous as he'd ever been.
For a long time, I'd regretted that we were bear mates only. My life would have been so much easier if we'd been attracted to each other as humans as well.
"He has nothing to apologise for. This is my melting mess. I should have told him already." I should have met him on his plane, instead of looking forward to showing him around the house. It wasn't anyone's fault but mine that our grandcubs had thwarted my plan.
"If he leaves you over this, he's not worth being your mate."
It wouldn't hurt any less. "Are you speaking as my mate now, or my leader?"
Haihg grabbed me by my shoulders and forced me to look him in the eye. Whatever he saw made him pull me against him. He let out a frustrated breath. "As a friend, Tahl. We were friends before we were mates. You may be my second, the bearer of our cubs, and one of our best healers, but you're my friend first. "
His deep, rumbling voice pushed itself through my core, and I calmed down instantly. Aside from Haihg, only Enfys managed to soothe me this fast. Though, thinking about Enfys now only caused panic.
"Shush, just breathe, and listen."
The wind curled around us as I breathed in and out in sync with Haihg, sheltered in his arms.
When Haihg finally broke the silence, he did so with a note of regret in his voice. "As your friend, I should have seen what was keeping you from telling him. Rufus really pushed hail on you."
"It's not just about him—"
"But that snow-blasted mainlander was the worst of them."
I couldn't deny that. Courting Rufus had not been my brightest moment. He'd been the last one in a short line of failed relationships.
None of them had cared about me being non-binary or wearing dresses, and, while it wasn't the easiest to tell them when they weren't northern natives, none of them had ended it because I was an ice bear. As long as I was willing to worship them with my cock and kept my bear out of the bedroom everything was smooth as ice.
However, that ice shattered once they realised I was a female ice bear. That was always the deal breaker. As if being a female bear sullied them. Worse, one with the "baggage" of having borne cubs. Their solution, without fail, was making me choose between them or my family. It broke my heart every time, but I was never going to choose them, because I'd melt all the ice on the island before I'd hurt my family.
Rufus had been the only one who couldn't take no for an answer without some...payback. Haihg himself had thrown that one off the island.
"I can tell you're thinking." Haihg wrapped his arms tighter around me. "I shouldn't have mentioned him."
I shook my head. "No. It's good that you did. Deep down, I know Enfys isn't Rufus. I just... I don't want to lose him."
"Hmm." Haihg turned us to face the city. "Well. He hasn't run yet."
The cubs were kneeling on the robot platform as it turned circles around Bauhn. They squealed and giggled as they tried to hit their father with the snowballs stashed between them. Enfys sat on the low bench in front of my—our—house. My heart skipped a beat. He had a beaming smile on his face, and wore the woollen coat I'd given him.
"Go on."Haihg pushed me towards the stairs. "Go talk to him."
I took a step, and another, gathering the courage. Haihg wrapped an arm around me, and together we made our way down.
Haihg deftly picked up our grandcubs, ignoring their protests. "The robot needs charging, and you two need dry clothes."
Bauhn tilted his head. I gave him a quick hug. "I love you, cub."
"Love you, too, Grumper," he whispered back, and trailed after his father and his cubs.
The robot bleeped behind me. I turned around to find Enfys standing close to me, holding on to his robot.
I kicked the snow. "This is not how I had planned our day."
I couldn't do this out here. I didn't want his first memory of our house to be about the secrets I kept from him, but it was getting cold outside.
We made our way inside, our silence interrupted by Enfys' bleeping robot. I hung our coat and cloak on the pegs, guided the robot into its pride of place, and plugged it in. As Enfys disappeared into the bedroom, I made both of us a hot broth to warm up. But should I follow Enfys? Or should I wait out here?
In the end, Enfys decided for me. He called out to join him.
I took a deep breath and took the mugs into the bedroom.
Enfys sat on the edge of the bed, wrapped in one of my woollen shawls. Another of shawls lay at the foot of the bed. I handed Enfys a mug as I sat next to him, and used my free hand to wrap my shawl around my shoulders.
Blowing into his mug, Enfys reached out and put a warm hand on my leg. I shivered. How could such a simple gesture turn me on, even now? I loved this man, and I had so much to lose if he rejected me. Yet, none of that seemed to matter as we sat here, close together, sipping our broths.
Only after I'd put the mugs on the floor, our silence became awkward, and my nerves came back.
Enfys leaned into me. "I don't know what's going on with you, but this...silence is running you hot, sunshine."
Wrapping an arm around him, I sighed. "I'm afraid you're not going to like what I have to tell you."
Enfys squeezed my leg, but said nothing.
I took a deep breath. I ignored the ice nibbling at my feet, and started, "You know those ice bears I promised to take you to?"
"I do. I'm looking forward to it. I hope I'll be able to touch one."
My breath hitched. He could touch me any day, bear or human. But I was getting ahead of myself. "I'm one of them, Enfys. I'm a shifter, an ice bear shifter. And so are my kin."
Enfys tilted his head and smiled. A slow, genuine smile that lit up his whole face. Then he kissed me, a mere brush of his lips against mine, rendering me breathless.
"I've been waiting to hear you say that for eight months. Thank you for trusting me with your tale."
I was...speechless. Utterly speechless. And for a long time, I just stared at him. "You knew?"
"I did. You're not good at hiding. Not from me."
I sputtered. I'd made sure not to say or do anything that might give me away. I was certain of it.
"I didn't link you to the ice bears at first," Enfys continued. "I thought you might be dog shifters, but there are so few dogs here. Then wolves, but the way you all treat the wolves, that didn't seem likely. At least, I didn't think you'd shoot your own kind. Penguins just seemed too small, so that left the ice bears."
"I don't want to ruin your mood," he pressed his lips against mine, again, "but that wet dog smell of yours gave you away the very first time you wrapped your arms around me. It clings to you like sand to wet skin. You and your kin."
That had been during our first outing, when he'd flown in to re-program our infected soil. "My kin, too?" Of course they did. Ice bears certainly recognised kin and clan by smell. I hadn't expected Enfys to do the same.
"Yes. It took me a few days to figure out who was what to you, because it's not like scent discloses that, but they smell like you."
By snow and ice. "You knew all this time? I've been worried as shattered ice to tell you. So few understand."
"I'm sorry you were drowning, and I'm sorry I threw unnecessary waves at you." He put a warm hand against my cheek, forcing me to look at him. Up close his eyes were so beautiful. Darker, more brown than golden, but still breathtaking.
"In my culture," he continued, "a tale can only be willingly given by its owner, Tahl. Forcing anyone to share their tale when they are not ready is as bad as leaving animals outside at midday. And you were not ready."
I hadn't even told him the worst of it. Though he didn't seem put off by the existence of my kin. In for a sliver, in for a berg. "I'm a female ice bear."
He blinked his unseeing eyes. Then his mouth dropped. "Oh. Oh...oh, wow. You bore your children?"
He'd figured that part out quickly enough. "I did."
"Yours and Haihg's?"
"Yes. But he's my bear mate only. We're not attracted to each other as humans. He has a human mate, Noohr." Who had never been blessed with cubs of her own, and loved ours deeply. She was their mother.
"Did your body accommodate for the pregnancy?"
I wish. "Unfortunately not. When bear and human gender don't match, there is only one choice. I spent a hellish three years stuck in ice bear form until our cubs were old enough to shift." Luckily bear-born cubs could shift when they were two, as opposed to human-born cubs, who couldn't shift until they were five. I shuddered.
"That must have been hard."
So much empathy shone through in his voice. If I didn't already love him, I'd have fallen for him right there and then. "Very. We were ill-prepared when I couldn't shift back to human after a day of hunting because I was pregnant. There are not that many gender-shifters around, and I reacted particularly aggressively to having my freedom to shift at will taken away from me. There were times when I couldn't even recognise human speech any more."
Those three years had wreaked havoc on my system. While I had accepted Noohr as Haihg's mate, my bear had been a danger to her until the cubs had been almost four.
"Ah. So, that's why your grandsons call you Grumper?"
I groaned. "I blame my sons. Both of them. And Haihg didn't help. Noohr tried to get them to call me Per, but Grumper stuck. I was Grumper as a parent, and now I'm Grumper as a grandparent, too."
Enfys laughed. "You love them like sunlight. Or snowflakes."
"They're my kin. How could I not?"
"I would be honoured to meet your bear and your kin." He wrapped his arms around my neck. "I love you, sunshine, bear and all. You are my light, the warm sand beneath my feat, and the waves that carry our sustenance."
I stilled. His words chased away the ice that had been nibbling at my feet all those months. "I love you, too. Like snowflakes."
"Is your heart lighter now?"
I smiled against his lips. "Light as fresh snow."
Enfys licked his lips. "Is anyone expected to walk in?"
The one custom both our clans had in common, as opposed to those close-minded mainlanders, was that our doors were always open to kin, clan, and visitors. "They respect a closed bedroom door."
"Good." Enfys rose and closed it with a bang. Then he beamed at me, threw off the shawl, and wriggled his hips as he undressed himself, slowly.
My heart skipped a beat, and my cock strained in my trousers. I shoved the mugs under my bed with my feet and leaned back to enjoy the show.
"There are truly no ice bears left?"
Enfys stopped his robot in the middle of the forest separating the city from our bear habitat.
"No full-blood ice bears, no," I told him. Unfortunately, our ancestors had died out centuries ago, when their food had become extinct after humans started hunting for the same fish and mammals in bad times.
Our clan of shifters only existed today because one lonely natural coder had decided to try and save ice bears from extinction. It was said that the coder had lived and communicated with our elusive ancestors from a very young age. He'd studied them all his life, and found a way to cross our two races, humans and ice bears, creating shifters.
When I was done explaining our history to Enfys, he understood how the coder had managed it, far before technology was on the rise, better than I ever could.
"I can't believe he was one of us." Enfys leaned against me, one hand holding on to his robot, the other wrapped around my neck as I led him out of the forest.
"I wish I could tell you more, but the stories don't mention where he came from, only that his skin had been dark as yours. His journals and research have been long lost to the snow."
"But retold in stories."
"Yes. Especially around Midwinter."
"The celebration we're attending."
"Yes." But the story could wait a little longer. We had entered the ice bear habitat. I described it all to Enfys, from the icy mountains to the left, to the iced over lakes up ahead, and the cold sea beyond that.
Since we arrived with the first group of the clan, I was Haihg's second after all, there were no ice bears, yet. Despite my scent clinging to Enfys—who had already teased me about marking my territory when he realised he was now smelling like wet dog, too—I was nervous about exposing him to our bears. I was no different than Haihg had been when he'd introduced Noohr to the clan.
Haihg was waiting for me, but I had a story to finish.
I brushed my lips against Enfys'. "We celebrate our ancestors and the history of our clan on this night. The first shifter cubs were born during Midwinter, a decade before the last ice bear died. Also during Midwinter."
"An ending and a beginning. It fits." Enfys clung to my cloak. "Are you turning now?"
"Soon, but not this close to you." I gestured for some of the younger adults and human mates to watch over Enfys. "We need to make certain my bear recognises you as its mate."
My voice must have betrayed the ice nibbling at my feet, because Enfys pulled me into a hug. "If you managed to recognise Noohr all those years ago, you're certainly going to recognise me."
He'd told me the same thing last night, and it was a thought I tried to hold on to as I strode across the snow to take my place next to Haigh.
He wrapped an arm around me. "He'll be fine, Tahl. I thought you two mating meant you'd finally stopped gathering shards in that brain of yours."
I swallowed as I dropped my cloak to the ground. "I will once I recognise him."
I threw Enfys one last look and shifted. The shift was never pleasant, but became smoother with experience. I had barely completed the shift when I smelled it. Haihg was right next to me, yet my attention drifted to where Enfys stood. My smell on him almost rose above that of my bear mate, enticing me to come closer. Yet, I stayed put, waiting for permission from our leader.
Haihg snorted and pushed me towards Enfys. I bowed to him. Our time would come once all the humans returned to the city. He shook his head when I didn’t move fast enough, showering me in snow, and walked past me towards his own human.
My heart raced as Enfys stepped down from his robot. The group around him cleared a path for him, and suddenly I could not wait any longer. I didn't dare run, afraid I wouldn't be able to stop in time, but I counted every step that brought me closer to my mate. My human mate, who smelled of me, and smiled up at me, even though he couldn't see me. I could be everywhere as far as he was concerned.
Yet, when I had to step around a hole in the ground, Enfys' face turned with my every move, as if he could see me. And then it dawned on me. He smelled me, too. Of course he did. I didn't much care for his wet dog description, but he knew what I smelled like, and he tracked me as I approached him. He held his hand out before I reached him, a familiar beaming smile on his face when I pushed my nose against his hand.
"There you are, sunshine," Enfys said, a note of awe in his voice as he traced his hand through my fur.
I stood as still as I could as he walked around me—first one side, then the other, but never behind me. He muttered words in his native language that I didn't understand, but it didn't matter. My mate was here, and I could feel his love in every caress.
Finally, he returned to stand in front of me, still beaming. "You are beautiful." He rested his hand against my nose again.
I ducked under it, and carefully nuzzled his chest.
He laughed that deep belly laugh of his that I loved so much. "I love you, too." He reached for his robot, and stepped onto its platform. "Happy Midwinter, sunshine. Go play and hunt, and bring me back some juicy fish."
Midwinter Bears © 2018 Blaine D. Arden. All rights reserved