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.