Chapter 1, part 4

In which dancers show their colors, and Maleo shows his ass.

They stopped just beyond the hallway entrance and a few dancers looked up with interest, pausing in what they were doing to await introductions.

“This is Naj, a serpent who’ll be dancing with us for a while. Naj, I’d like to introduce a few of my dancers – Gwendolyn,” a tall, lithe blonde nodded in his direction as she moved towards the hallway opposite from them, her pale shoulder flashing tawny tiger stripes before she slinked from view.

“Travis,” a tanned youth at the counter grinned around the slice of pizza he was stuffing into his mouth. His broad shoulders shrugged sheepishly before dark grey fur rippled across his muscled arms. He grinned, but thankfully, didn’t try to speak.

“Maleo,” she gestured to a golden skinned man on the stairs who scowled at Naj as black feathers rose from his head in a warning, making his dark hair stand on end with their motion.

Naj didn’t know what to make of the dancers’ greetings. He was elated to see the old practice of declaring the colors of their second skins, but he still hadn’t quite recovered from the burn out of opening his aura earlier, and without that cue to guide him… The tigress’s quick retreat and the avian’s obvious annoyance gave him pause. The wolf seemed open enough, but it wasn’t wise to interrupt a wolf who was eating… Naj fell back, the first doubt creeping into his heart. But Dev drew his attention along to a pair of dancers curled up together on the couch, who smiled and were much warmer.

“Natalia,” a dark skinned brunette lounging on the farthest couch raised her head and her hand, which lightened in places revealing the odd splotchy coloration of an African wild dog, “and in her lap is Marie.” The redhead cuddling a fur to her chest rolled off Natalia’s lap to bound across the room to them. As she moved, the fur she’d been cradling swayed behind her, revealing the large fluffy tail of a red fox. She was petite, standing just over five foot, with a trim frame. Her unruly red hair fell past her shoulders and the amber eyes of her animal form gazed up at Naj with a friendly grin. She held out her hand to him, the other hand tucking behind her back in a show of restraint.

She hadn’t missed Dev’s warning look and had adjusted her greeting accordingly.

“I’m Marie, happy to meet you. If you ever need good warm cuddles, I’m your girl.” She shrugged a shoulder as her grin widened to wrinkle her nose. “My temp runs higher than most, so I’m kinda the unofficial group space heater.”

Naj took the tiny fox’s outstretched hand by the wrist, only pausing a moment to marvel at how hot her skin was. He touched her palm to his heart, an old gesture of harmlessness and yielding. Warmth spread across his chest, and he released her with a wistful sigh. Naj took a step back, to include the whole room. He pressed a red-scaled fist to his chest, then gave a small bow to the people who were opening their home to him.

“Li’Daea’mn yt ki’n, ÿ’arieÿ’ehna.”

May the Goddess’s blessings sing to your souls.

Mal gave him a disgusted look as Marie released a high pitched noise and launched herself at the serpent as he stood up out of the bow. Dev rolled her eyes and stepped back. She’d known the girl wouldn’t be able to contain herself for long. From the other side of the room, Natalia’s rich laugh grew closer as she stood to join them.

Marie wrapped her arms around Naj’s neck, cuddling into him even as her feet threatened to leave the ground with their height difference. Her voice continued, though dropping a bit in pitch as she murmured at him. The exact words were lost to her face buried in his neck, but the idea of being welcomed and being glad he was here was clear.

Naj froze, back almost straightened, but not quite. Once he felt the small woman’s feet leave the ground, he’d been unsure of what to do. But she seemed happy enough to be there, and her welcoming words reassured him as her heat washed over him. He let his knees soften and sunk gracefully into a kneeling position, so that they were closer to face to face. He could feel the line of her body, heat spilling around her to fill the space between them. Such a warm welcome. He chuckled softly at his own cleverness and said the words out loud to his diminutive welcome wagon.

A renewed, but quieter squeal of delight devolved into a giggle at his words. She let her feet take most of her body weight again and leaned back a bit when she felt Nat move closer.

Dev touched Naj’s shoulder briefly to get his attention. “There are a few things I still need to take care of, but if you need anything, feel free to ask.” After she glanced at Natalia, she added, “Nat and Marie can help you finish settling in.”

His eyes found her eyes slowly, mind already retreating from the press of so much goings on. The warmth of the little fox called to his serpent like a sunning rock, and the serpent mind had had quite enough, and was ready to sleep since they’d eaten. Lost in the fox’s embrace, it would be so very easy to sleep…

He shook his head, bringing himself back. Dev was speaking. She was leaving. Her eyes moved to the other woman and Naj followed. Natalia was a darker, taller copy of the fox that held him, dark hair loose in an equally glorious mane, blending into her rich skin, except for the golden highlights in the front that drew his gaze to her soft eyes. Naj nodded to her slowly, though he couldn’t remember why he had needed to nod in the first place…

Sure that Naj was being left in Natalia’s capable hands and knowing she would keep Marie from overwhelming him, Dev turned to head back upstairs. As she passed Maleo though, she paused. When he didn’t look away from the spectacle of the fox and the serpent, she touched his shoulder hard enough that he had to continue the turn and look at her. It was a grudging glance and she didn’t like that he didn’t bother hiding his distaste.

“Behave yourself. I won’t have any fighting down here, especially not with the new serpent.” Her voice was quiet, deliberately pitched to keep those further downstairs from hearing her warning.

Mal didn’t bother looking ashamed that she’d noticed. He took a breath and shuddered, letting his feathers settle back into place along his scalp and neck. His golden eyes flicked back to the scene below them.

“I mean it, Mal. If your jealousy is going to be an issue, find somewhere else to sleep tonight.”

He pressed his thin lips together, the lack of color making it seem as if they’d vanished. When he answered, his voice was tight and low with effort. “I know the rules.”

Dev leaned closer, nearly hissing in his ear. “I know you do, but that didn’t stop you from harassing Jax. This one has enough to deal with without adding your childishness to it.”

Warning issued, she continued upstairs, satisfied that he would listen. There was a brief moment of voices murmuring down from backstage, and then all was quiet again.

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