In which Naj makes friends, and Nat lets her hair down.
Marie had been excited at the prospect of a new nest member, ecstatic when Dev had mentioned he was a serpent. She hadn’t thought her greeting too enthusiastic, at least, not until she felt Nat’s hand on her shoulder.
It was a warning, but a friendly one. Her lover would never take away from greeting a new friend, but Marie sometimes got carried away. She knew that, and she loved that knowing Nat would step in if needed meant that Marie could give in to her overabundance of joy without worry.
She pulled back from Naj, eyes shining, letting her hands trail up to hold either side of his face. She studied his dark eyes, growing more somber as she recognized the stillness behind them. Jax used to get that look in his eyes too sometimes, when he couldn’t handle being human anymore and hid in his other form. He would be gone so long sometimes that when he finally came back, he didn’t remember how to be warm again.
She leaned forward and rested her cheek against his, letting her warmth absorb the coolness of his skin. “If you need help warming back up, let me know, alright? You can sleep in our room tonight if you want the company.”
He felt so good against her. Sometimes she forgot what it felt like to feel cool relief from another shifter. It had been what had drawn her to Jax in the first place, his ability to push back the pulse of high heat and energy within her.
She wondered if he would be more like Jax, or less. Jax had distanced himself from serpent traditions, preferring to be his own person in his own words. He avoided speaking of serpent culture or how he’d grown up. From what others had said, his withdrawn personality and quiet tones were unusual for serpent kin.
The fire of her face felt like sunshine against his, but he was growing weary. The serpent form that had been his haven for so long felt comfortable, uncomplicated, and this world he was throwing himself into was certainly not. The emotions of the others in the room swirled around him, beat at him like small, hot winds, even with his aura clamped down as tight as it could go. The serpent was able to ignore it, to make it just heat, but his human heart knew of things like excitement, and curiosity, and jealousy, and it was difficult to filter it all out and just focus on what was being said instead of what was being felt. He should be grateful that the feeling was returning after his burnout, but mostly, he was just tired.
Naj looked over the shoulder of the little fox girl for the other woman Dev had pointed out earlier. The cool night sky to the fox’s blazing sun. Of all the emotions in the space, hers felt the steadiest, the least ruffled by the excitement he’d stirred up. He looked to her and asked, “Please, if there is just somewhere quiet I might lie down?” He knew that soon the downstairs would be flooded with people the way the backstage had been, everyone high on the energy of the crowd and the show, and he knew it would be too much for him. He did not want to have to flee to the serpent, especially since Dev had warned him about casually shifting. He knew it was allowed in the back rooms, but better not to give in, better to practice staying human, if could manage.
Naj reluctantly pulled back from Marie so he could look her in the eyes. A small shiver filled the empty space her heat left behind. “Please, do not be offended, but I need a moment of stillness. Your fire burns so brightly, but I have not danced with Li’Daea in such a long time. I need stillness and sleep. If you hold those things within you,” and his tone made it clear that he did not think so, but held joy all the same, “I would welcome a warm body at my back. But I need stillness, while it is still my choice to go to there willingly.”
Nat watched the serpent as he carefully extracted himself from Marie, nodding when his plea turned in her direction. She wasn’t surprised at all. The last serpent in their nest, Jax, sometimes got a similar look on his face when Marie was overwhelming him.
The words were new though – Jax never acknowledged the Goddess, never mentioned such traditional roots at all, if he ever had them. She kissed Marie’s temple as she drew her back, wrapping her arms around her. As she held her against her, Nat murmured into her ear, “Now might be a good time to warn Mal to leave our new friend alone.”
Marie’s smile never faltered, though Nat could feel the tightness that crept into Marie’s muscles. “I understand. Sleep well and I’ll see you tomorrow.” She reached up to touch Naj’s cheek one more time in reassurance. “You’ll be happy here.”
Then she turned and stood on tiptoe to give Nat a kiss. Nat chuckled and ruffled her hair in return. “We’ll be in our room. I could use the sleep after getting up so early.”
Marie nodded and headed for the stairs, only glancing back when she passed Mal on the stairs. She looked past him though, her eyes finding Nat’s, then dropping to where Nat had offered Naj her hand.
Mal’s eyes were all for her though. At the look on Mal’s face, Marie faced forward again, teeth worrying at her lower lip. She wasn’t looking forward to this argument.
Nat touched Naj’s arm to turn him back towards the hallway, tucking herself close to him as they walked. Her hazel eyes glittered in the dim light and she tossed her long curly hair back from her face. “You can always ask me to intercept Marie if she gets to be too much. She knows she can be a handful, she just doesn’t always recognize when people hit their limits.”
As they moved, she let her demi form slide to the surface, her skin lightening in some places, darkening to true black in others, and taking a more golden hue in select spots. The hair around her temples also took on more golden notes. She wanted him to feel comfortable being himself however he preferred – she’d found that leading by example was often the best way to convey the sentiment.
“This is our room.” She gestured into the second room on the right so that he would enter first. The far corner held a large assortment of cushions and blankets, clearly arranged into a cozy nest for multiple people to cuddle together. There was a dresser and short shelves on one side of the room. The walls were covered in pages of sketches. They were full of dancers in various poses, some at rest, some mid motion. Some were colored, some were ink, some were hastily scribbled charcoal outlines. They were all vivid captures of emotion, showing the heart of the dance and the dancer. Several closer to the corner were obviously of Nat, most unclothed, a few including her demi form.
“You’re welcome to sleep here with us for as long as you might like. Marie stays up later than I do, burning off her excess energy. I always welcome someone to curl up with.”
As she tugged her shirt over her head and turned to nudge her baggy cloth pants to the floor, she let her tail slide out. It nearly swept the floor with its patchwork of colors. Enjoying the freedom of her demi form, she reached for the ceiling, arching her back in a long stretch. She grabbed a hair tie to loosely tie her hair back from her face.
She was only wearing a pair of dark, low slung boy shorts, which was all she or Marie slept in when they wore anything to bed at all. She took her time putting her hair up, allowing Naj some time to himself if he needed it.
Naj moved without conscious effort in the direction Nat guided him. While her skin was not as hot as Marie’s, the comfort of skin to skin touch was still a glorious thing. It wasn’t until they had stepped inside their bedroom that Naj actually took stock of his surroundings. His eyes were drawn to the walls, to the beautiful lines and captured heat of the many sketches. He recognized his rescuer’s form among them, not all of them fully human. Nor was she fully human now. Still, it was never good to assume.
“Before the time passes to ask this gracefully, would anyone here find it distressing to find a serpent where they had left a man?”
His voice was small and delicate, as if the very question itself might offend. And indeed, such a lack of control would have been disgusting in his former life. Many a Dai shifter had lost themselves to the magic they were claimed for, and had to be put down like the wild beasts they’d allowed themselves to become. Though Naj was not that far gone, he also knew he was not that far from it. This was undoubtedly his last chance to reclaim his humanity.
Naj kept his eyes fixed on the ground, slumping in on himself to be a small as possible.
“I am afraid I do not possess the control I once did, though I assure you, I am in no way feral.”
Nat laughed softly, moving past him to kick an errant pillow back into the pile and to nudge some blankets aside to make a place for herself in the nest.
“Not at all. People fall in and out of form here all the time, especially in the safe areas. It’s been a while since we’ve had a serpent wandering around, but you’re welcome to exist however is most comfortable to you.”
She yawned and stretched, curling a pillow into herself. Her foot nudged a few more pillows away and her tail looped over her waist, hiding her boy shorts. “The last serpent that lived here would sometimes hide under Marie’s hair when he’d had an especially bad day.”
“Hiding is exactly why I’d prefer not to allow myself to do it, just yet.”
While it was a relief to know he would not be ostracized for his short comings, Naj still preferred to practice the control that had once been his. He slipped off his shirt and stretched out next to Natalia on his back, hands tucked under his head. He would sleep after a while of staring like this, letting the stillness slowly sink into his thoughts.
“I need to remember reasons to stay here, need to make connections to pull me back into this skin when it slips, I hope –“
He stopped himself suddenly, remembering they were there to sleep. It was rude to prattle on like this when he wasn’t alone, just talking to himself for the company of the sound.
“I hope that you sleep well, Natalia. Thank you for sharing your stillness with me this night.”
She laughed softly and swept her tail back across him, intending the touch to be soft and reassuring. “I don’t mind listening if there’s something on your mind.”
Nat slipped her leg back so that she could touch the heel of her foot against his leg. It was nice to know someone was there while she slept, an old habit of hers. She let her eyes drift closed.
“And Naj? Please feel free to call me Nat, if you don’t mind.”
“Of course, Nat.”
A tension released within him, flowing out of him with those whispered words. He let the arm closest her slide down, laying it along the top of her head. He shifted his weight so that he was leaning toward her, but not actually on his side. The heat of her drew him towards her, and he let his thoughts wander along the space between them, enjoying the warmth radiating between them. He let out a comfortable sigh and settled in, content.
She smiled as she felt him shift behind her. Her breath eased out as she relaxed. She let herself drift towards sleep, though she was ready to perk back awake if he said something.