Chapter 3, part 4

In which Emily joins the dance.

“There’s no coffee, is there?” The quiet voice faded into a big yawn.

Marie turned, catching sight of Emily leaning over the counter as she blinked at the coffee maker. Her expression was disappointed, shapely lips pulled down in a confused frown. Her skin somehow seemed paler when she’d just woken up, probably an effect from the lack of her usual theatric make-up. Marie was so used to seeing her face done up in stark, contrasting colors. Her black hair was tousled, bangs tangled across her forehead. The majority of her long hair was thrown up in a messy clip and left to feather over the top of her head. The result would have been comical on anyone else, but even in a baggy black tee and pajama pants, Emily always managed to look elegant.

The woman slumped gracefully against the counter when Marie shrugged apologetically. “Nope.”

“This is Naj though.” Marie gestured with the spoon, grinning when Emily’s pale blue eyes widened.

Emily straightened, plucked at her bangs, then sighed and rested an elbow on the counter as she gave up on her appearance. Her smile was tinged with chagrin as she turned it on the newest dancer. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to ignore you, lack of coffee makes me a bit slow in the mornings… Ro mentioned last night that we had a new dancer.”

She reached over the counter with her other hand, letting the golden fur run out from under her sleeve and down her arm as she did so. The uneven spots gave her away as a leopard. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Emily.”

Naj’s eyes widened as Marie offered him up instead of coffee. He tried to smooth his expression, but from the looks of it, the other dancer was as bewildered as he. She was rather charming in her fluster, covering it quickly, or perhaps just abandoning it all together. Naj shifted, following her lead. Red scales flashed in the overhead light before fading away as he shook her offered hand.

“Likewise. Please, don’t let me interrupt your morning routine.”

“It’s alright, my routine is off right now anyway.” She shrugged, then had to stifle a yawn before she added, “I woke up early so I could hit the ceramic studio before work tonight, but then I heard Marie so I thought I would get a cup of coffee and start on my make-up… But there’s no Nat with Marie.”

At Naj’s confused look, she shook her head, smiling at her own jumbled thoughts. “Sorry, I guess caffeine keeps me from rambling so much normally.” She used one hand to outline each event in order, “Nat doesn’t get up until there’s coffee, so if I hear Marie, then Nat’s usually up, which means coffee is already made, and that means I can steal a cup and retreat back to my room to put on make-up…”

Marie giggled from the stove as she kept stirring the pot of soaking oats. “It’s true.” Then she looked up, confused as a thought struck her. “Wait – normally Kain makes the coffee, is he still asleep?”

Emily shrugged, then tugged her loose tee down when it rode up her stomach with the movement. “I guess. His room was dark when I came out.”


“He was probably up late. I know Chris and Travis were. Some sort of action movie marathon—I had to put on music to drown it out before I could sleep.” She glanced over at the coffee maker with a wistful sigh. “I suppose I’ll just grab something on the way to the studio.”

“I could try—”

Even before Marie could suggest it, a wide-eyed Emily was already holding out a hand and shaking her head. “No, no, it’s fine. I’m just going to go get ready. Don’t worry about it, Marie.”

Marie shrugged her shoulders, then turned the heat off on the stove. “Want some oatmeal?”

“Nah, if I’m stopping anyway, I’ll grab a bagel.” She pushed off the counter, waving a few fingers at Naj with a more alert and partially relieved smile. “I’ll see you guys later.”

Naj tried to follow the exchange, but much of it went over his head. One thing that was becoming apparent was that the kitchen was most certainly Kain’s domain. Despite Marie’s assurances, he was growing less comfortable intruding on the space. Until he had met the fellow, he’d rather not trespass. At least it seemed like breakfast was nearly done. They could clean up and retreat and all would be well.

Emily was departing, and Naj returned her friendly wave, trying to ignore the sense of impending conflict. He simply would not be able to relax in the kitchen until he felt he’d received permission from this Kain. It was foolish, and he told himself as much, but it did nothing to untangle the knot building in this stomach. He didn’t feel allowed in here yet, public space or not, and too many years of conditioning had taught him to tread carefully when blatantly disregarding the rules.

He unfolded himself from his forcedly relaxed posture, trying to ease into something genuinely comfortable. The rag was still in his hand, and as Marie doctored the oatmeal, Naj ran his hand under the lip of the counter tops, chasing phantom dirt. When he came around to where she stood, he sniffed delicately at the air, smiling in appreciation.

“That smells wonderful.”

She’d been so focused on adding more flavors to the oatmeal that she’d missed Naj coming back to her side. When he spoke though, she beamed up at him. “Thanks! It’ll taste just as good.”

Marie looked to either side, and then pointed to a cabinet. “You want to get down two bowls?”

“Of course!”

He jumped eagerly to carry out her suggestion, pleased when he saw the bowls would have been genuinely difficult for her to reach. Nothing she couldn’t handle on tiptoe, but it was certainly the better division of labor to ask him to fetch them.

Of course, selecting two bowls was easier said than done.

The cabinet was a mad riot of colors, mostly leaning towards blues and coppers, but sprinkled in with greens and reds and purples and tans, all mixed and in varying tones, bright splashes and subdued hues. Honestly, it looked a bit like as many coiled serpents, all shining in jeweled colors. That might have been a trick of the glazing techniques—and indeed, each vessel appeared to be handmade. Not just in coloring, but the shaping of each was subtly different. Here, a wider, flatter bowl, there, one so deep as to almost be a cup. Curled lips, fluted edges, textured sides—even the pieces of similar coloration differed from each other in style. But somehow, despite all the differences, they came together to form a cohesive whole. While not a set exactly, it was clear they had been shaped by the same masterful hand.

Naj could not select a pair out of the elegant spread. Every time one caught his eye, he struggled to find a fellow suitable to bring with it. By the time he thought he had a likely match, he had lost whatever bowl he had set his eye on in the first place. The colors and styles swirled together before his eyes, leaving him dizzy and strangely upset. Why couldn’t he remember a single, simple bowl? What was wrong with him? Surely, he had not lost this much of himself to his many years as a serpent. His lack of focus was disturbing, and distressing, which only added to his inability to focus.

Seth interceded, yet again. Really, Naj was doing rather well. Seth tried not to let his frustrations color the way he handled the distressed little serpent. This was exceedingly hard for Naj, he knew that, and again, he had to remind himself that Naj was doing very, very well, all things considered.

But really, bowls? How could be so hung up on something so simple as pottery? This wasn’t a matter of life or death, where picking the wrong gemstones brought the entire containment circle crashing down. This was breakfast for crying out loud. Seth picked the first two bowls he saw and got them down. Easy.

When it took longer than a few seconds for Naj to get down bowls, Marie glanced over. He was staring. It was totally a fair reaction, Em’s work was beautiful and the first time she’d seen them, she’d definitely had to take a moment to absorb it all.

But he seemed unhappy. She was about to say something when his expression cleared and he brought over two bowls for their breakfast.

She shrugged it off and dished out oatmeal. He had said he was easily overwhelmed, maybe that’s all it was. She could give him space to sort himself out when it happened if that was what he needed.

When she finished with the oatmeal, she opened the container of blackberries. Popping one in her mouth, she made a happy sound. They were sweet, but tart, perfect for the oatmeal. Kain always had the best berries. She grabbed a couple for her bowl, then nudged the container over to Naj so he could pick out however many he wanted.

Before they could have another moment of panicked indecision, Seth picked over the container, grabbing the softest berries, knowing they needed to be eaten first. He eased Naj back into the action of berry selection, hoping that moving from picking bowls to picking berries would be a relatively smooth transition. It should be fine. Gods, he was so out of practice with this. They had both been gone too long. Hopefully, there would be little need to regain the skill.

Naj followed Marie’s example, moving a berry straight from the container to his mouth. The fat, ripe fruit burst on his tongue with puckering sweetness. It was a good thing they were eating them this morning—they were perfect. A few of the smaller berries might make it a day or two longer, but the larger ones he’d picked out for himself were at the height of their glory.

He’d not been this excited about eating in a long, long time.

Satisfied with his bowl, he pushed the container of berries back to Marie with a nod of thanks. As she closed it and put it back in the fridge, Naj went to wipe the counter, but didn’t have his rag. A quick look and he found it back by the bowls. He frowned, but obviously he would have had to put it down to carry both bowls, of course. A quick wipe and the counters were spotless again, and a quick rinse had the towel back in serviceable condition. He floundered with what to do with the rag, but Marie was already moving, so Naj draped it over the faucet and made a note to ask about it later. Perhaps they would need to clean up after eating.

Marie thought about hopping up on the counter to sit like she normally would, but Naj had just wiped them… So she grabbed her bowl and headed for the kitchen table, laughing internally at herself. It was what the table was for, after all.

She slipped into a chair, adjusting to sit on one foot so that her tail wouldn’t be cramped against the back. She scooped up a bite of oatmeal, but she was too busy watching Naj for his reaction to eat her own breakfast first. Marie was practically bouncing in her seat, wanting to know what he thought. She didn’t want to interrupt and ask though.

Naj followed her to the table, only hesitating for a moment about where to sit. There were four chairs on each side of the table alone, let alone the two at each end. But he shook himself before he could fall into another fit of indecision. He took the seat immediately in front of him, leaving an empty seat between he and Marie.

He scooped a dainty spoonful and blew at it carefully before bringing it to his lips. It was extremely sweet, but then the berry burst its tart coolness over the whole thing, and it was perfect. Naj had forgotten food could be this pleasurable. Then again, he’d been subsisting on what he could find as a serpent. Still, it was delicious, and he said as much to Marie with many thanks.

At his praise, she made a small excited sound. She used her momentum from bouncing to tuck her other foot under her, leaning over the table as she grinned at Naj. “I’m glad you like it!”

To keep her from talking overmuch, she took a bite of her oatmeal. Nat always said it was hard to eat when someone was staring at you and gabbing a hundred miles an hour.

He chuckled at her enthusiastic reaction, but a huge smile covered his face as well. “I like it very much. Thank you for cooking for us.”

He had another bite and made another happy sound, settling into the companionable silence between them. This was good. It was simple, uncomplicated, and good. He would be happy here.

Previous: Chapter 3 part 3                                                                                                                   Next: Chapter 3 part 5


Chapter 3, part 3

In which Naj and Marie continue their dancing in the kitchen.

As they stepped out into the hallway, Marie left the door open behind her. Her smile widened in the brighter light, she was feeling better already. Moving had definitely been the answer. When they reached the Great Room, she noticed Gwen was already awake, seated at the far end of a couch with a small mug and a book. She must have been who had turned the main lights on. The tigress glanced up, then quietly went back to reading when Marie waved at her.

Marie grinned up at Naj, tugging him over to the kitchen. As she padded around, she poked her nose into several cabinets, her tail swishing around her as she moved. “Mornings you’ll be on your own – most people sleep in after the late night, so it’s a good time to practice if you want to use the stage.”

Hands on her hips, she paused, thinking over what he’d said about getting started right away. “Um, aside from practice, there won’t really be anything else to do until later in the day – We don’t get the club ready for opening until about three or four, since we open at five.”

Marie gave the refrigerator a long look, nibbling at her lip as her thoughts turned towards food. She wondered what Naj might like. There was no point in cooking just for her and having him cook just for him – she could just make food for the both of them… But all she really had to go off of was what Jax liked.

The light clicked on and she shook her head at herself. She was really being dim this morning.

“What would you like for breakfast?”

He followed her lead, grabbing his shirt from the night before when she dressed and moving with her from the hallway to the kitchen, though he was of little help there. Many members of the Ahn’Ki Dai went for long periods of time without eating or sleeping, surviving only of the magic of their dark god. Naj knew little of day to day domestic rituals, always being told his time was too precious to be wasted on the mundane, but he was still reluctant to simply be taken care of. It felt… unnatural to him. It always had.

When Marie asked him what he’d prefer, he simply stared at her with open mouth.

“I… I have no idea.” He tried to blink away his confusion, but he was simply dumbfounded at how difficult he was finding the question. He never really thought about what he preferred to eat. Certainly, he’d make selections from what was offered, but his considerations were usually based on things like how much physical activity he was expecting, or when his next meal was actually likely to be. But he had no way of knowing if today would be strenuous, an immediate jump into a dancer’s role, or something more subdued. An overly full belly would be a hindrance either way…

And he had no idea what might be available besides. The bread and tomato food from the night before had been pleasant, but seemed to be lacking in substance, as he was already hungry again. Something with fish or eggs would be better for physical exertions-

She’d didn’t ask what you need to eat, she asked you what you’d like. You’re allowed to like things, you know.

That thought stopped Naj’s whirling mind dead in its tracks. What would he like? He had no idea. When choosing foodstuffs, taste and enjoyment rarely entered into it. What did he like…

He pushed, reaching back mentally for a time before the militant discipline of the Dai. How had none of the serpents realized how wrong that life had been? But they had, they all had, they simply overlooked it because they had to. Those that did not….

No. No dark thoughts. Not this morning. He didn’t want the taste of death to follow him here.

Seth watched the serpent floundering, felt him searching for memories long buried, struggling to push past darker days. And yet thoughts of mother had slipped by without Seth being able to stop them. This dance was getting trickier with every step.

With a gentle nudge, Seth moved the thoughts of fallen serpents to the side, making it easier for Naj to reach the happier memories he sought. It was delicate work, shifting and serving without being noticed, but he was happy to do it. They’d walked these steps together for centuries, and with any luck, this part of the music was drawing to a close, and soon Naj would be able to stand on his own two feet without Seth’s help.

One could hope.

It wasn’t much, but Naj felt sweetness on his tongue, and a soft warmth. Rice? Spices? He couldn’t quite recall, but it was a favorite of his, whatever it was. It was simmered in a big pot, leaving the air of the entire square filled with its fragrant scent all day…

But that was all he got. His memory would not yield up the name, or anything else that might help. He offered Marie an apologetic smile and a shrug.

“Something simple?” he offered uselessly. “I usually don’t give much thought to what I eat.”

“Hm…” She went back to rummaging around in the fridge with a frown. He’d been no help. But the lack of caring about food did kinda explain why he looked so thin…

“We have cereal, oatmeal… There’s always eggs and toast.” As she pulled open the vegetable drawer, the sweet peppers sparked a memory. She thought about not saying it, but it seemed silly not to just because of Jax. “Or I can make a simple rice dish that Jax showed me. I don’t know if it has a name, but it has eggs, rice, and sweet peppers, well, any vegetables you want, really…”

He tried to answer, stammered a bit, then finally blew his breath out with a soft smile. “Please, you overwhelm me.”

His tone was gentle, not the desperate plea he’d made of her the night before. He was actually enjoying the quiet warmth of her company. He could feel her heat radiating from here and it felt good against his skin. He hated to ask anything of her, but she was so open and accommodating, it seemed almost more rude to deny her. Still, there was no need to go to any special trouble just for his sake.

“If you’re willing to simply fix a little extra of whatever you’d prefer to have, that will be more than enough for me. I hate to even ask.”

“Oh!” She turned and gave him a smile that was only a little tinged with chagrin. Marie hadn’t even thought that choices might overwhelm him…

Her immediate response was to hug him, but she was afraid that would only make it worse. She didn’t know what overwhelmed him, but she seemed to keep doing it. She forced her hands into her pockets to stifle the urge. He looked so… Not sad, but unsure? It was silly, but whenever someone new was in the nest, she always wanted them to immediately be comfortable and happy. Nat had to remind her that everyone did things at their own pace… It had taken Lena weeks to come out of her room, and Nat had had to force her not to go in and pull Lena out before she was ready.

She was learning though.

“I really don’t mind…” She ducked her head, looking back into the fridge. “Um… What would I make…” She shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t always eat the same thing for breakfast, but – Oh! We have new berries, Kain must have brought them down.”

Her head popped back up, a container of dark fruit in hand. “Do you like blackberries?”

This was turning out to be far more complicated than it needed to be.

He should have just picked something and let her cook for him – it was clear she needed to make him feel welcome just as badly as he needed to not feel like a burden. The instant she made a suggestion, he leapt on it.

“Yes!” he said too quickly, but laughed it off. “Yes, I’m quite fond of berries, especially tart ones in something sweet.”

Grinning, she placed the container on the counter and closed the refrigerator. She was pleased that she’d managed to find something he would like. She pulled down the oats, then maple syrup and a few jars of spices.

“Good, then the oatmeal should be sweet and the berries will stand out more…” Marie stood on tiptoe to see over the bar better and called into the Great Room where Gwen was still reading. “Gwen, do you want some oatmeal?”

The tigress looked up, gave a long, slow blink, and shook her head. She did, however, stand from her curled position on the couch and head towards the kitchen. Her lithe frame swayed as she walked, her blonde hair tied back in its usual tight bun. It made her angular face look more severe. Marie knew she wasn’t actually half as cold as she looked and she gave her a peppy smile as she passed by.

Gwen arched an eyebrow, then continued past her to rinse her mug out and tuck it into the dishwasher. As she passed by Naj to leave, she caught his eye and nodded minutely. Something that might have been a smile crossed her lips.

Then she was gone.

Naj started forward when he watched Marie strain to reach the higher shelves, but she managed just fine on her own. Of course she would, she actually lived here, and had done just fine without him before.

When Marie called out to the tigress in the Great Room, he kicked himself mentally for forgetting she was there. Not only had it been rude, but a part of him winced at the breech in his alertness. He wasn’t surprised that her aura had been too muted to notice—only tigers looking for a fight broadcasted their strength—but he’d been trained better than that.

Then he was chastising himself for being so foolish in his new home. Despite her chill demeanor, Gwen was a nestmate, not a threat. Not only was it allowed for him to relax here, it was his goal. He returned her nod, though he did not quite pull himself together in time to smile. Ah well. All in all, he was doing rather well.

Once she’d left, Naj forced himself not to think about where she’d gone, willed the tension to leave his shoulders. He put all of his attention on the tiny fox, looking to see how he might offer Marie a hand.

“Is there anything I can do?”

Marie wrinkled her nose in thought. “Um…”

Finally she just shook her head with a laugh. “Not really? All I really have to do is boil water, pour in the oats, wait a bit, then mix in tasty stuff.”

As she pulled out the measuring cups though, she paused. If he was so eager to help out… She didn’t want to kick him out of the kitchen entirely if he wanted to learn his way around it.

“I guess you could measure out two cups of water while I measure out the oats? It’ll save about five seconds, so it’s totally only if you want to.” She smiled at him over her shoulder.

It was clear she was making work for him, but he was grateful, and moved quickly to do as she asked. He had great difficulty, however, getting the water to the right level. Every time he poured some off to get it to the cup line, he always seemed to miss by just that much and had to add more back. But the faucet ran so quickly, it was always more than he needed, so he tried to pour off just that much…

Marie tilted her head as she watched Naj meticulously try to measure out exactly two cups. She opened her mouth twice to say something, but she didn’t want to embarrass him. Still, it was kinda funny.

“It’s okay if there’s a bit too much. The oats will absorb most of it anyway.”

He jumped when she spoke, he was so fixated on the water and the line. Water splashed over the sides, and he cast about for a towel to wipe it up. He found one easily enough on the stove, and dutifully handed over the water before turning to dry the counter.

Damp rag in hand, Naj continued to wipe at the counter-tops and side of the fridge, moving without any real thought. The smile that blossomed while he worked was genuine and gentle—for the first time in a long time, he felt useful. He was cleaning, he was helping, and it felt good. Never mind that the kitchen was already nearly spotless—Dev must have insisted someone clean up the mess that had been left from the night before. Still, she had said it was up to everyone in the nest to keep the place clean, so he would do his part.

Marie giggled as she watched Naj bustle about with his little towel. It was funny how much even a small smile changed his face. She bit her lip and poured the water into the pot, then set the temperature so it would boil.

When she glanced back at him again, Naj was clearly looking for something else to wipe down. She shook her head, a little surprised that cleaning was what was making him so happy. Everyone in the nest cleaned because it was part of living together, but no one really enjoyed it. “Kain’s going to love you—he does a lot of the cooking for the nest and he’s forever getting onto some of us for getting it too messy.”

His curious look turned from the kitchen surfaces to Marie. Perhaps it hadn’t been Dev who had enforced the cleaning. “Oh? Is it Kain who oversees the kitchen then? Will he mind us being here?”

His hands went behind his back, tucking the rag away without thinking. He wouldn’t want to be the source of any upset. But surely, no one would mind him cleaning…

Her laugh grew. He looked like he’d just gotten into the cookie jar rather than been caught cleaning. She couldn’t help it, she bounced over to kiss his cheek, grinning up at him.

“Nope. This is all public space – Kain just does most of the cooking, so he likes to see it neat. This is spotless, he’ll wonder what mess someone’s trying to hide. Normally after pizza night, he’ll find sauce on the fridge, on the counter… Under the counter…” She covered her giggle with one hand, then forced a straight face as she rolled her eyes and sighed theatrically. Her voice drastically deepened as she made an exasperated expression. “Travis, do you even eat the slice of pizza or do you just throw the first one at the ceiling and eat the second slice?”

She moved so quickly, he barely had time to register her actions before she was on to the next. As she rattled off a litany of common kitchen mistakes, his brain struggled to process that she had kissed his cheek. Physical familiarity didn’t bother him—in fact, it was quite a comfort—but how long had it been? Her lips had been soft and quick, but the heat of them still burned against his cheek. The cloud of citrus and spice that seemed to hang about her lingered on his skin, brought fresh to his mind from her hair when she brought her face close…

FOCUS! He needed to focus. She was being good enough to explain all the rules to him, and here he was lost in one simple kiss. It was clearly an unconscious gesture from her—she surely would have refrained, if she’d known it would distract him so. He’d seen all the little aborted gestures, the way she pulled in on herself when she clearly wanted to be acting outward. No, this exuberance was Marie’s natural state of being, and the thought of dimming her light made his heart ache. He stood a little straighter and made himself recount, word for word, what she had been saying, and did his best to ignore the linger ember of heat on his cheek.

Naj had to stop himself from checking every place she listed off. Just because the space was cleaner than it had been didn’t mean it was up to standards now. If someone had broken the rules by leaving the kitchen a mess, but had tried to make amends—no, it wasn’t his place to cover for an errant nestmate. How else would they ever learn, if they did not face punishment for a breach of the rules? He would tuck the knowledge away for future reference, but he would not make any attempts to track down forgotten evidence of the mess from the night before.

A sudden booming voice jolted him from his thoughts, and it took him a moment to realize it as Marie. She was making a joke, about the kitchen head, it seemed. He must not be that strict, if the nest was comfortable teasing about him.

“I assume it’s not actually all that bad?”

“Not really, Kain just likes to tease.”

She poured in the oats, still smiling at herself. “And Travis is awfully easy to tease. He likes to make people laugh, so if you don’t crack the joke, he will.”

Marie frowned as she reached for the wooden spoon in the utensil holder and found it missing. Hands in the air, she turned, finally spotting it on the other side of the sinks, close to the bar.

She made a face and retrieved it, eyeing it suspiciously. It looked clean, but it had been out of place… When in doubt, wash it.

As she did so, she began to laugh again. “Like that—Travis probably used the big spoon to mix a bowl of cereal or something last night and never put it back. He probably washed it… But then again, it’s Travis, so he might’ve just set it by the sink meaning to wash it later and forgot.”

“Aside from little things like that, the place stays pretty clean. No one wants to be the one who makes a mess and leaves it for someone else to deal with. Kain or Ni—” She stumbled over the name, surprised at herself. It had been a while since anyone had mentioned Nica. Why had she almost done it now? It made sense to think of Jax with Naj around, but Nica… She shook her head and kept talking.

“Someone always speaks up if something like that happens. Everyone does a little bit so no one has to do all of it.”

Naj tucked himself against the counter when Marie went casting about the kitchen. He looked around as if he could help, but he didn’t know where anything was kept, and more importantly, didn’t know what she was looking for. But then she found her spoon and her running narrative on the nest picked back up where it’d left off. Naj was enjoying the commentary. It was nice to learn about everyone without the pressure of having to actually interact with them. He hoped there would be many more quiet mornings like this. He was enjoying his time with Marie immensely. Which was, of course, why Fate sent another dancer out to join them.

Previous: Chapter 3 part 2                                                                                                                            Next: Chapter 3 part 4

Chapter 3, part 2

In which Naj and Marie dance, though not in the usual way.

Naj woke with a start. He was too warm, too still to be this warm. He needed to move, needed to let the heat dissipate before it smothered him.

He tried to rise, but found himself in an unexpected tangle of bodies and blankets. Shoving down his instinct to fight his way out, his mind flew back to the night before, replaying everything from his talks with Dev to meeting the fiery Marie and the much calmer Nat. He relaxed as he thought, but the need to move still buzzed in his limbs. It’d been quite some time since he’d woken up like this, seized by the urge to dance. He shifted around carefully, trying to discern how best to rise without disturbing his sleeping companions.

The shifting coolness against her front brought soft sounds of protest from Marie as she slowly woke. It took her several moments to understand that someone was trying to get up from the bed. Which was silly, normally Nat didn’t wake her when she got up…

Naj. The name came with another brush of cool skin on hers.

He was trying to get up. He’d been sleeping between her and Nat… The realization that he was probably too warm hit her—he’d been overwhelmed by it last night. She swept her tail out of his way and kicked a few blankets down to make it easier for him to move.

In the dim light, she could see Nat’s back, curled away from her, tail wrapped tightly against her thighs. Marie smiled and tucked a blanket back over Nat when Naj finally slipped out of bed.

As she laid back to watch Naj, her warmth dissipating as she pulled away her own blanket, she remembered the heat and chill from her dream. He’d saved her from her nightmare. Memory. She shivered, pulling back from such gruesome thoughts.

She turned her eyes and mind back to Naj.

“Thank you.” Her voice was soft, barely breaking the quiet of the room over Nat’s deep breathing. “It’s been a while since I’ve had a nightmare like that.”

Damn. Despite his caution, he’d awoken one of his companions anyways. Marie didn’t seem to mind, and even helped him untangle himself from the nest, but he was still upset with himself for disturbing her. But when she curled back over without a word to tuck the blankets around Nat, Naj held himself serpent still, waiting to see if she would sleep again.

But no. Her eyes shined out in the dim light as she turned her gaze on him, and spoke into the stillness. It was barely a whisper, but the emotion of it hit him in the gut like a blow, and he swallowed hard to recover from the pain and fear and desperation of her nightmare.

“Was it you then, who brought such fire to my dreams?”

Her gaze dropped. “Ah, yeah, I guess so…” She curled her tail up into her arms to play with the fur. Nervous habit, but it soothed her. Nat always said her tail was like her security blanket.

“I’m sorry if I dragged you into it, but I’m glad you stopped it. It always gets worse after the fire and pain come…” Why did she say that? She tried to avoid talking about the dreams in detail, but he’d mentioned fire first… She sucked her bottom lip in, worrying at it as she ran her fingers through her fur. She let it go again as she tried to relax into the sensation.

When her eyes disappeared into the darkness again, Naj stretched himself up on tiptoe, arms reaching high in a stretch. He would relieve the tension in the room as he did the same for his protesting muscles. They would be happy for the work, once he fell back into the habit of it.

He spoke softly as he moved, breathing the words with the natural pace of his stretches.

“It’s no trouble. Dancing the ki’ik il’li is nothing new to me.”

He let himself fall into remembered steps of the greeting to the dawn, though he had no idea what time it actually was. It was not uncommon for him to sleep for either minutes or days, but he assumed since his companions were still abed that it was more likely he was waking from the middle of a normal night’s sleep. Though normal hours around here might mean any number of times. Still, it felt good to greet the day with the gentle stretches of the dawn dances. Too often he’d lay for hours, coiled and cold, waiting for a reason interesting enough to move. It was nice to be warm enough to dance for the dawn.

She nodded, glad that his words and actions gave her something else to focus on. Her eyes traced the simple patterns in his graceful movements. Her fingers twitched, feeling an old compulsion. It had been so long… Marie sat up and grabbed a nearby pad and pencil from the dresser, eager to give in to an urge she hadn’t had in months.

As her hand traced lines over the paper, she let the organic flow of his movements reflect in her own. An arm arced upward, a leg extended… The lighting from the hallway gave just enough light that she could make out the stark contrast between white paper and black charcoal. She wasn’t aiming for perfection anyway.

Her mind replayed his words, tripping over the foreign sounds. Serpent tongue? Jax had never used that kind of speech and she wondered what language it was. Jax had never liked talking about serpent culture. He’d been very careful to avoid the topic, in fact. Past in the past, he’d say, if anyone ever bothered to press him.

“Kickilly?” She repeated, letting her curiosity show. He could either answer or not. Jax would have minded, but then, he wouldn’t have left the opening either. Giving him the option to continue if he wanted kept her from feeling rude though.

That thought brought her up short as she realized she was being exactly that. Her hand stilled. “Oh… Do you mind if I sketch you? I didn’t mean to assume…”

He paused in his steps, at a loss as how to being to explain the ki’ik, the dance of fire of and ice, but she spoke again before he had found the right words.

“Oh, so these are yours?” He stayed poised on his toes, but gestured around the room with his arm. “I admire your skill, the life caught in the lines is astounding. It feels as if they’d move if I just turned my back.”

Flushing slightly, she ducked her head back to her sketchpad. His compliment made her stomach feel warmer. Nat always said her sketches were good, but Nat liked everything she did. “Thanks. I’ve been trying to get better at catching motion on the page. I took a class on still life with Em, but movement is harder.”

“That it is.”

Naj wouldn’t let the dark irony of that statement dim his dancing, nor their conversation. He was getting better at not getting completely derailed by stray thoughts, and was pleased that he remembered he had still not addressed her question of permission to use him as a model.

He circled around on his toes still, stretching up in a long line towards the ceiling. “I am very much a serpent of Li’Daea.” He turned his head to smile at her over his shoulder. “I wouldn’t dance if I didn’t intend for it to shine. Li’Daea’mn ÿ’ariÿe. Be blessed, my friend, and sketch to your heart’s content.”

After a moment, she let her hand go back to tracing lines. In much the same way, her mind was running back over his words. There was so much she didn’t quite understand…But then, she didn’t suppose she should know serpent tongue. The kindness of his words came through loud enough and she relaxed even further into her sketching.

“I’ll admit, I don’t understand most of what you’ve said – Li’… Day ah? Illy?” She laughed softly. “It’s all Greek to me.”

He joined her in her laughter. “Close. It’s pri’mn, the first song.” He paused for a moment, a half-remembered memory fluttering across his attention. A pale woman, a big, round room… then it was gone again.

He gave a flourish of his hand and small flames flickered to life in its wake.

“Li’Daea means Our Lady of Light… more or less. It is she who drew the first serpents out of the darkness, and gave them the gift of ki’n – firesong, heartbeat, passion. Light.”

He turned slightly away from her and continued dancing, so that she could watch him as she sketched. His steps now were slower and more subdued, with lingering pauses between each phrase. “I am much older than it would seem, Marie. Not so old as Li’Daea’s first serpents, but old enough to remember much of their ways.” He stopped all together and stood perfectly still, letting all of the movement slide out of his body. “I have also spent much time among the servants of Il’Dao, of stillness, and for them, the old ways are the only ways.”

He sunk down to the floor and continued to stretch out, letting his loosened muscles go soft. “I know I am very out of place in this time, that’s part of the reason I’m here. I’ve stood still for too long, it‘s time to remember movement and life.”

The sudden bits of flickering light stole her attention. For a moment, she’d wondered if she’d sparked somehow, but it was coming from Naj’s hand.

Eyes wide, she watched the trail of fire fade as quickly as it’d come. The ghost image hung thick before her eyes. He could call fire? She’d never met someone else who could just call it up on their own. Sure, dancers used it in acts sometimes, but never like her…

Her pencil hitting her foot shook her from her reverie and she scrambled after it as she realized he was still speaking. She felt a little light headed, but she tried to draw herself back into the act of sketching. And their conversation.

“Well… There’s lots of life and movement here.” She stared at the page in front of her, trying to remember what form she’d been working on. “And I like the old words. They sound pretty.”

“That they are.”

The words were a dreamy sigh, a sharp contrast to his earlier utterance, and it was clear for a moment that his thoughts wandered with those words to a far off time and place. Then he smiled at her, chasing away the echoes, and lowered his face to his legs, enjoying the leisurely stretch.

As her eyes skimmed over her page, she frowned and turned to a fresh page. She couldn’t remember where she’d been going with that piece. It was good, but the flames… She wanted to try something else anyway. Her hand started across the page again. “Not many people here talk about their past really.” She paused, reconsidered the line and began drawing again with little flicks of motion. “Then again, most people come here to start over. Jax always said ‘What’s woven cannot be unthreaded without tearing apart all that is, the good and the bad’.”

She made a small sound that was almost a laugh. “That was how he said he didn’t want to talk about something. A big way to say that the past was unchangeable and not worth talking about.”

Naj hummed in agreement, then arced an arm overhead, opening into a new stretch. It felt just as good to flex his memories of serpent lore as it did to flex his muscles.

UL ksmiÿe, UL il’li ra ERA. That was considered an old saying when I was young.”

The big room had been warm, almost too warm to keep awake during his lessons. The pale woman was patient, kind, but as stern and unyielding as the packed earth floor beneath their feet…

He dropped his arm back into a neutral position and folded his legs so he could lean forward on them. Face pressed into the thick carpet, he breathed in the smell of fur and charcoal, cleaners and sweat, the warm musk of fox and wild dog. Finally, when he felt more grounded in the now than then, he raised up on his elbows. Partially for a new stretch, but he also wanted to give Marie more of his attention so that she did not feel dismissed.

Ksm. Fate. And to weave. The two ideas are nearly interchangeable in the old tongue.”

He could do this. He could look back over the tapestry of his life and not get lost following every thread. Some threads were better off not followed, but some… Some colors he would like very much to weave into the pattern again. It would give a nice symmetry to his life, if nothing else. Happiness, light, music, laughter—yes, more of those threads would balance things nicely.

“I don’t always remember much of my past, but what I do, I am happy to share. I like the reminder of who I was.”

He smiled at her again, anchoring the emotion to action. He tried to push the aura happiness in her direction. It was a tricky thing – all serpents could feel emotion like a sixth sense, but it was much harder to shape those emotions deliberately. He’d lost so much of the natural joy and exuberance his kind was known for, but perhaps, if he smiled enough, it would return to him. Happiness was one of those lovely gifts that grew larger when shared.

“Who I’d like to try to be again.”

Her hand continued sketching his actions idly while her mind focused in on his words. The idea of Jax knowing the old tongue or its ideas… There was a small pang as she let go of questions she would never get to ask.

Instead, she took a deeper breath, focusing on the promise of his last words. He was trying to be happy, she could at least try too. So she put on a smile that was a little braver than she felt. “I’m looking forward to getting to know you, too.”

Marie set aside her sketch pad. She needed to move herself and she’d lost whatever idea she’d been trying to capture anyway. At the thought of getting out of bed, her stomach rumbled lightly, making its demands known if she intended on getting up.

The thought of getting up made her wonder if anyone had started breakfast – it didn’t smell like it. If she had to guess it was probably mid-morning, meaning most of their nestmates would still be sleeping off last night’s capers. The hallway lights were still dimmed so people could sleep, but the Great Room’s light was on and casting enough light for her to see by. She was a little surprised Nat was still asleep, but she would likely keep sleeping until the scent of coffee drew her out of bed.

“Breakfast time, I think.” She laughed softly, stretching her arms high overhead before she carefully climbed out of the tangle of blankets and pillows. “Are you hungry?”

He felt her emotions shift, though he couldn’t tell if it was because of his efforts or not. Still, what did it matter if the end result was achieved?

That thought was dangerously practical, almost Dai thinking, but before he could worry at it too much, Marie was climbing out of bed at the demands of her stomach. Naj realized then that he too was hungry, and he rolled onto his feet to join her.

“I am, thank you. Can you show me around the usual morning routine here? I don’t want to be a bother, but I’d like to get started right away.”

“Sure…” Marie turned and grabbed a pair of short shorts and a green tank top from the closet. She slipped them on before she moved towards the door.

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