Chapter 1, part 3

In which Naj is shown around, and daily life is explained.

Dev glanced at the door that would lead to the backstage area and the dancers therein. At the thought, she could almost feel the chaos of the space vibrating through the door. With the show ongoing, the likelihood of anyone taking the time to investigate the stranger with her was low. But the likelihood of them all being manic on performance energy was high. She pursed her lips, briefly wondering if she shouldn’t just leave the new serpent here until things had quieted downstairs. But she didn’t want to leave him alone yet either. If he was a recovering feral, and slipped into his magic, getting him to return could be problematic. Damned if you do, damned if you—She chuckled to herself at the inadvertent witticism, then she reached for the door. To waylay the questioning glance he gave her, she added, “Backstage will be chaotic right now and introducing a new arrival would only make it worse. We’ll keep the tour up here brief and focus on the downstairs living area until the performance is actually over.” She reached out and patted his arm, in what she hoped was a reassuring way. It was always so much harder to keep up a stage persona with serpents and other aura-sensitive races. Had to smile inside and out.

Heat flooded through him, radiating from her hand on his arm. He could hear the life pump through her, feel her vitality pulse off her body. After so many centuries in the cold company of the Dai, surrounded by ghosts with their every thought and emotions locked down… Even if her warmth was from annoyance, it was the sweetest thing, to be touched by someone alive, someone capable of showing signs of anger, passion, sorrow. He almost missed the fact that she was cautioning him, her words lost to the feeling of her emotions.

The vibrancy of this nest would take some adjusting to, certainly, but he was looking forward to the challenge of it. If drowning in her annoyance had thrilled him, well – he couldn’t imagine how much sweeter being caught up in a nestmate’s joy might be.

He grinned at her, excitement at the prospect getting the better of him.

“I think I should like to meet these enthusiastic dancers.”

“All in good time.”

Great. He was dreamy and doey eyed already. The sooner he was tucked safely downstairs behind the wards, the better. If he got overwhelmed and shifted, she’d rather he do it out of sight.

As they moved down the hallway, Dev paused by a door on the right. “This leads back out to the main floor. The door we came in to enter the resting room from the main floor is usually kept locked, this will be the door to use when you need access to the club proper or the bar.”

She kept walking, pausing again when she reached the end of the hallway. From here, they could see most of the backstage area, full of clothing racks, random stage props, and people milling about in colorful clothing. A few glanced their way, but Dev shook her head and they all returned to what they were originally doing.

“The curtains on the right are the entrances to the stage itself. To the left you’ll find various dressing rooms and bathrooms. If you need privacy for whatever reason, I suggest using the room we just left.”

Naj nodded, pleased to see the space so open and full of life. Privacy was almost a foreign concept to serpent-kin; there was little point to hiding what everyone could plainly taste in your emotions. The fact that these dancers seemed just as open, despite none of them being serpent, made Naj feel more at home already.

He sipped at the emotional auras that brushed him as they passed, feeling the expected blend of curiosity, excitement, and distraction humming against his skin. He relaxed his own aura, letting it billow around him in a more naturally serpent way. It left him feeling light-headed and disconnected from himself, but grounded more firmly in the nest as a whole. Every dancer shone like a brilliant beacon, burning with ki’n. Echoes of the past layered on themselves in a mad riot– performances, rehearsals, fights and trysts, nervousness, failures, triumphs and celebrations all shouting at him, and all of that was nothing compared to the dancers themselves. Taking in that much at once was enough to leave his senses dazed, like staring too long into the sun. Immediately, his aura clamped back down against his skin, clinging to him like a frightened child.

It had only been for a moment, but in that moment, he felt like himself again.

Dev was moving on, harder to pick out now that he couldn’t follow her aura among the rest. Relying on eyes alone, he would quickly lose her in this mad dervish of activity, so even though he was still reeling, he urged himself forward to keep on her heels.

During a lull in the backstage action, she moved them straight across the bustling room to another door on the far side. This door had a strange design engraved above the doorknob and as she touched the knob, the design warmed under her free hand.

“Security here is taken very seriously. This symbol is connected to a ward that only allows specified people downstairs.” She didn’t turn to look at him as she spoke, keeping her attention on the door. It took little effort for her to sweep through his aura, letting his energy mark the symbol. “Now it will recognize you as someone who belongs downstairs. It’s meant to keep outside influences out of the most private of spaces here.”

Seth jerked back from the feel of her magic brushing over their aura, but relaxed into it when it became clear the demon wasn’t reading what she was sampling. It was merely an identifying tag. Naj was still headblind from his little experiment backstage, so Seth felt confident he wouldn’t notice as Seth slipped a piece of his own aura along with Naj’s. Now there would be no trouble getting downstairs later. With any luck, it would be a moot point, but better safe than sorry.

The door opened to reveal a short flight of stairs, lit dimly by small wall lights. Dev descended the stairs first, trusting Naj would follow. At the bottom, the steps opened into a large room, split partway back by a counter and bar stools. The front two thirds of the room were defined by large overstuffed sofas and cushions strewn about the floor. Blankets were tossed haphazardly in a few places. There was a large TV and shelves filled with movies and books to either side. A few instruments revealed that someone had clearly been playing before the night’s performances.

“This is the Great Room, and the kitchen just beyond it. A lot of free time is spent in this space, during meals or simply lounging – they always seem to be watching something when I come down here.”

The back third of the room held an open kitchen, punctuated by a large kitchen table and seating for ten. Behind the table were a sizable refrigerator and separate freezer unit. Dev was exasperated to see the messy remnants of the pizza that they’d clearly ordered from Roman’s earlier. The evidence had been left splayed over half the kitchen bar. It wasn’t normally so unkempt when she came down here.

Naj peered about the space, hardly recognizing anything he saw there. His last clear memories were of a time when horse and buggy and gas light were the norm, but he had hints and pieces of the times changing around him. He remembered automobiles, distantly, and radio, but nothing in the Great Room was familiar to him, save the cushions on the floor and various musical instruments scattered about the room. Those were a comfort to him. The more things changed, the more some things stayed the same. Right down the chaotic state the dancers had left their home in, the implements of musical joy laying just where they had been left, in easy reach to be used as the mood struck.

Naj wrinkled his nose at the smell of food and sweat, stronger to him now that his sense of aura was still recovering from upstairs. The mess in the kitchen offended his sense of discipline, but often most dancers used their home spaces to escape the rigid control of their training. Naj knew he was the odd man out, and simply did his best to ignore the way untidiness made his skin itch.

Dev continued her running commentary as they moved further into the space, which was empty of anyone but the pair of them. Naj looked about for signs of anyone – the space clearly looked lived in, but it was just as clear that there was no one down here now. Most likely, they were all busy upstairs. There’d certainly been enough people when they’d made their way through the backstage, but it was unusual for a nest to be so small, wasn’t it? Just another sign the times had changed, he supposed.

As she moved into the room, she explained that for tonight’s show, everyone was upstairs working in some form or fashion. She expected her dancers to be able to help keep everything running – whether it was working the lights, the music, the bar, the floor, or just by dancing on stage. Everyone contributed in some way every night. As she eyed the messy bar counter, she shook her head. “Everyone is also expected to help with the cleaning – especially down here. Since the ward is keyed to aura signatures, only dancers are allowed down here in the first place, which means no maid service.”

The last was spoken in dry humor.

Naj listened as she detailed various chores that meant little to him. He assumed he would learn in time. He liked that he would be expected to help out–the more he was held accountable for, the better. It would help him stay on task, give him a meaningful way to measure out the days.

He moved further into the large room, approaching the kitchen bar that had drawn Dev’s ire. A large cardboard box with some kind of half-eaten circular bread sat on the counter. He tried to tidy it, both wanting to help and wanting to ease the itch, but the lid refused to close. The top was emblazoned with a large Roman coin, cut into eight pieces at the bread inside had been. It smelled of tomatoes and herbs and spices, and Naj’s belly rumbled softly.

At the gentle rumble, Dev turned back to find Naj fussing with the pizza box. It derailed whatever she’d been about to say and she moved towards him with a quizzical look. “However, don’t feel you have to clean up everyone else’s mess. If you’re hungry, feel free to grab a slice, but otherwise, there’s more to see down the hall.”

He jumped at her look, feeling guilty for some reason. But when she offered him food, he took it, not wanting to be rude. And he was hungry besides. He couldn’t remember when he’d last eaten, and if he wanted to wean himself off magic, he’d have to make sure to tend to his physical needs in the old fashioned ways, lest he fall back on old habits.

The bread was crispy but soft, and a red sauce leaked out from under the cheese melted on top. He licked his fingers, enjoying the tang of the tomato and the spice notes. It went well with the slight sweetness of the bread, and he finished it all quickly.

“Thank you. Thank you very much.”

“Help yourself.”

Dev smiled again when he took another slice, then fixed the box so it closed. “As far as the kitchen goes, anything stocked is fair game. You’re free to cook for yourself whenever, there’s no set meals. However, a few of the dancers like to cook, so it isn’t uncommon to find someone already making a large meal at any given time.”

To either side of the large room were open archways. Dev moved as she talked, leading him down the one on their left, closest to the stairwell. It opened into a very long hallway marked with doors at equal intervals on either side. Most of the doors were open and they could glimpse inside as they passed by. No two looked alike.

“These are all bedrooms. You’ll figure out quickly if a room is claimed, but there should be several open. There are a multitude of different bedding options available and if none of these catch your interest, we can always find something that will.”

They passed one room that held a hammock suspended in one corner and feathers were strung from the ceiling. Another was empty, save for a small daybed. Still another had a corner filled with blankets and pillows in a cozy mound, the walls full of colorful pieces of paper. A few doors were closed, one of which was nearly hidden behind a crimson tapestry. A few more rooms looked to be empty, with either different types of beds or clusters of cushions.

He was pleased to see so many different options filling the rooms. He made note of a room that was empty save for a pile of blankets. He would settle there, or somewhere else out of the way. He didn’t want to impose, and he’d honestly be comfortable anywhere. He’d spent most of his life sleeping on simple pallets, a soft blanket below and above was enough for him. Briefly, he flashed on the memory of tangled limbs, warm bodies and soft breathing surrounding him while he slept. A surge of longing, for something lost… No, not thoughts for now. Focus on Dev, don’t keep her waiting.

Seth scowled, but left Naj alone. If he needed space for the first night, he would grant it to him. But he would not allow the serpent to hide down here like he’d hidden upstairs. That wasn’t the point. But for now… well, at least he was downstairs and socializing with this demon hostess.

The irony of that was not lost on him, but he let that go too. Their demon summoning days were long, long gone. If she didn’t recognize, or care, that he was of the former Dai, he would leave it alone as well.

When they reached the far end of the hallway, Dev motioned to the doorway in front of them. “This is another communal space.” She ushered him into a small tiled ante room, with a bench and several cubby shelves mounted to the walls.

There was a door before them, and one set in either side wall. “To the left are the showers, the right holds the toilets, and in front of us, this door will lead to several bathtubs and our hot tub, should you want to relax your muscles after practice or work.”

Naj listened dutifully to everything she said, but his brain was beginning to get over full. There would be time a plenty to familiarize himself with the place, and if this was a communal space, he would not be intruding if he came back to look over it later. A myriad of scents were lingering in the air: herbs, spices, flowers, musk. He didn’t relish the idea of exploring these rooms with his senses so open and raw. He’d wait until his aura recovered fully and could offer him a buffer. So he simply nodded and did his best not to let the motion sway down his entire off-balanced frame.

She frowned slightly when he didn’t give any acknowledgment. It wasn’t a long or overly involved tour, but if he was feral, who knew what sort of tolerances he had? She moved them briskly back down the hallway towards the Great Room. “The other hallway will be the same, except that the door at the end leads to single-stall showers, and a laundry room. Dancers do their own laundry, save for specialty cases with some of the costuming. Those we send out for cleaning.”

Upon reaching the Great Room again, Dev was pleased to see that a few of the dancers were already settling into the space. It would be a relief to hand him off so she could get back to her own rooms and begin planning.

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