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?”
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.