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.