And then there was Rowan.
Naj stiffened at the sound of the new dancer. He willed himself to relax, dismissing the scales he’d called to cover his torso. There was no need for armor here. A smile would be a better greeting for a fellow nestmate, no matter if the man were tiger or avain—he’d have to be, for the aura not to have given him away before sound, and that had been what had startled Naj into scales in the first place. It was unwise to let your guard down around either race.
Among the Dai. Not here, in this nest. Be at peace.
A lanky brunette rounded the breakfast bar, stopping when he saw Naj. The dancer covered his surprise with an elegant nod of his shaggy head and extended his hand. A ripple of short, rounded black feathers chased themselves up his arm then melted away again before they could even fully fan out. They gave nothing about his second form away, other than it being avian, but Naj flashed a patch of his own scales before shaking his hand anyways.
“Welcome to the nest. My name is Rowan.”
“Many thanks. I am called Naj.”
Rowan’s handshake was firm and brief, a friendly gesture without any hint of typical avian appraisal and competitiveness. Of course, that might have been from distraction more than anything. Rowan’s pale grey eyes flicked around the kitchen, falling slightly when he didn’t find what he was looking for.
“No coffee yet? I thought I heard Emily…”
Marie grinned as the two men exchanged greetings. She loved her nestmates and was ecstatic that Naj was getting to meet everyone. She was sure he would love them just as much as she did.
When Ro seemed confused, she laughed, leaning back in her seat. “Oh, she was here, but she went back to her room when there was no coffee.”
“Ah…” Ro hid his disappointment with a quiet smile, rocking back on his heels as his gaze fell to Marie’s bowl. “Blackberries? Did Kain go picking last night?” Ro knew it couldn’t have been this morning or there would have been coffee already.
Marie nodded and pointed to the fridge when her mouth was already full again. Rowan slipped over to the fridge and found the container. He leaned against the fridge as he began to pick over the fruit.
“So, Em went back to her room? Did she say if she was going back to sleep or…?” He trailed off, looking the berry he held over carefully before eating it.
Marie hid her giggle at his feigned nonchalance. “She said she’d be going to the studio in a bit. I think she’s getting dressed now.”
He perked up at that and slipped the container back in the fridge. “Oh, well… I might see if she was planning on getting coffee on the way then. If Kain asks, let him know we’ll be back in plenty of time for the opening, okay?”
Rowan quickly made a beeline out of the kitchen, having to double back a few steps to nod at Naj and tell him that it had been nice meeting him.
And then he was gone too. Marie could hear the faint rapping from down the hallway and the quiet murmur of voices. She wrinkled her nose and finally gave in to her giggles, bowing over her breakfast bowl
Ah, that explained it. Rowan’s erratic emotions had been hard for Naj to follow, but equally difficult to tune out as they buzzed against his skin in the closer proximity. The burst bubble of expectant happiness, renewed at Marie’s words had made it clear–Rowan had been hoping to see the lovely leopard from earlier. Naj couldn’t blame him. She’d seemed rather sweet, despite her insistence that sleepiness was making her rude. Naj had thought she was charming. Rowan was too, actually. They suited each other.
Then Marie was laughing, and Naj looked at her in confusion.
“Did I miss something?”
He leaned back to look down the hallway, but couldn’t see around the breakfast bar. It was clear Emily and Rowan were talking, but Naj couldn’t make out what, and had to remind himself it would be rude to eavesdrop in this setting. With the Dai, anyone foolish enough to have a private conversation in public was either baiting you with false knowledge, or too stupid to be trusted with anything worth overhearing. Everyone listened out of habit, but no one trusted a word of what was said.
But he was not with the Dai. How many times would he have to remind himself of this? This was his nest, this was home. He needed to relax. He turned his attention back to Marie, ignoring the urge to check for prying eyes as she leaned in conspiratorially.
Marie leaned over the table and whispered quietly. “They liiiike each other.”
She drew out the word in a soft singsong, then smothered her giggles with one hand, her eyes laughing for her. She sat up to glance towards the hallway, but it was obvious that they weren’t moving this way yet. By the sound of their voices, they were probably in Em’s room. She leaned back down to keep filling Naj in.
“I think everyone knows that they like each other but them. They haven’t gotten around to admitting it yet.”
The playful tone of her voice brought him up short, and he blinked rapidly in surprise. It didn’t help that her words made no sense. They weren’t aware of their affections for one another? But Rowan’s emotions had said it so clearly… Then again, it was truly a wonder what the mind could keep from itself.
He felt a stirring from the sarcastic voice in his own head, but ignored it as Marie pulled him back into her confidence.
“Is it supposed to be some sort of secret?”
She tilted her head, hair falling over one shoulder. She was lucky it didn’t end up in her bowl.
“Weeeeeell. No, not really.” Marie shifted from side to side as she tried to figure out how to put it. “It’s just that they’re both shy about private stuff, so no one really talks about it, I guess? Ro would be upset to know that he was that easy to read because he thinks he’s hiding it from Em. And Em… Well, I dunno what’s up with her…”
She shook her head, giggling again. “Does any of that make sense? They’re just really cute like they are. I think Chris has bets going on for when they actually start dating.”
“Um… yes? And no, not really.”
The entire concept was foreign to him, but then again, he had a hard time imagining what it would be like to have to wonder what someone else was feeling. Yes, the nuances of a particular person’s mood might elude him, but he always knew if someone were happy or sad or excited, at least. Unless they were shielding—but Naj hadn’t had any trouble reading Rowan, once he’d gotten close enough. And why would nestmates hide from one another? Even in the Dai, the nest had always been open and honest with one another—how else could they expect to perform as one?
Because of their gift for reading emotion, serpents were generally very physically open as well, moving in and out of relationships with fair ease, sexual or otherwise. When a couple was mutually attracted, they acted on it. When it was clear there was nothing to act on, they moved on. Simple. This… this sounded ridiculous at best, more like a recipe for heartache and disaster.
…then again, the raptors and tigers he’d dealt with among the Dai seemed to do just fine without it—they just stayed haughty and distant. To each his own, he supposed. Perhaps leopards were the same way as the tigers. And who knew what feathers Rowan actually wore.
Marie would know, he supposed. She seemed happy enough to talk about the nest, and maybe they would make more sense to him the more he listened.
Marie fell slightly. She clearly wasn’t explaining this well. This was exactly the sort of thing Nat was better at. “Well, if Ro doesn’t know how Em feels about him, then he’ll hide that he likes her because he doesn’t want to make her uncomfortable if she doesn’t feel the same way and risk ruining their friendship. They hang out all the time and it’s kinda… Well, he seems happy with how things are now.”
She splayed her hands palm up on the table. “Em’s just really shy. She doesn’t do much dating stuff, since she’s busy with school and her ceramic stuff—like the bowls? All that took her months to make. And she makes lots more stuff to sell too. So Ro’s going at whatever speed she sets.”
“Which is kinda funny because we don’t know if Em knows she’s setting any speed at all. But Kain and Nat say that she definitely likes him, so it’s just a matter of which of them finally act on it.”
She gave him wide, expectant eyes. “Did that make more sense?”
“Oh, I understood. It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Seth gave her a wiry grin, knowing that they could sit here all day waiting for Naj to figure it out. He let his sense of enjoying a private joke settle over Naj, catching him up with the small cheat Seth had taken in the conversation. He and Aezir were lucky Naj was so accommodating, or this whole charade would never have worked.
“Thank you for explaining it to me. I’ll never know why people play the games they do.”
Ugh. It always gave Seth whiplash to only partially step in like that. But Naj needed to learn, and they both needed to pick their battles. Explaining coy courtship wasn’t particularly important at this point. Keeping Naj talking and making connections within the nest was.
Marie’s smile returned. She had never thought of it as a game Ro and Em were playing, but maybe it was. They certainly seemed to enjoy dancing with one another. If they were happy, then she was happy too.
She settled back in her seat as she heard voices getting louder. When Ro and Em appeared she was all set to give them a cheery little wave as if their potential relationship hadn’t just been the topic at the table.
Em looked cute, her make-up of choice today being dark and ornate around the eyes and bright red on the lips. It matched her dark corset like top, threaded with crimson ribbons that hung loose around her dark jeans. Her hair was up in bun, the ends fanning out in spikes around it, bangs a neat curtain across her forehead. Ro was behind her by a half step, a relaxed smile at the ready. He wore a simple black button up with black jeans, a pale grey undershirt breaking up the dark ensemble with some band’s logo. His black hair feathered back from his face to fall about his ears as if he’d only run his fingers through it in a hurry.
The pair waved back and disappeared upstairs without stopping or speaking.
When they were safely out of ear’s reach, Marie sighed happily. “They’re so cute together.”
Naj hardly recognized Emily when she and Rowan emerged. He waved automatically, and stared long after they’d passed through the doorway upstairs.
Blinking, he realized he’d lost himself. He jerked his eyes back to Marie when she spoke, eyes a little too wide.
“I’m sorry, what was that… Was that still Emily?”
Attention pulled back to Naj, Marie gave him a surprised look, then giggled. “Oh, yeah, that was her in her usual gothed out glory. I forgot you hadn’t seen her normally dressed, she was in pj’s earlier.”
“That is…” He stammered, completely at a loss. “That’s rather impressive,” he said at last. “She’s quite an artist.”
“Yep!” Marie grinned. “Dunno if she learns it all at school or if she’s majoring in art because she’s so good at it. Whatever she does always looks really awesome though.”
Struggling to think through the fog of details, something she’d said earlier bubbled to the surface.
“Wait, did you say all those lovely bowls are Emily’s work?”
Nodding enthusiastically, Marie held up her mostly empty bowl. “Mhmm… When she seriously got into her ceramics stuff and started selling them, Nica asked her to make all the dishes here.”
She bounced a bit in her seat, caught up in the excitement of the memory. Nica had the entire set wrapped separately so everyone could open at least one box of them on Christmas morning. “It was a present to all of Asylum.”
His brows softened from confusion to tenderness. He picked up his own bowl, admiring the delicate edges and carefree drip work of the glaze.
“That’s very touching. And generous. I’ll have to remember to thank her for her generosity.”
Marie nodded, her smile fading only slightly as she remembered how Nica had proudly announced that all the dishware had been made by Em. She’d insisted that everyone stop and thank the blushing leopard. Nica had always taken such pride in everyone’s gifts. She’d always gone out of her way to showcase them, like how she’d asked Marie to make a few large sketches to frame for the main floor of the club.
She shook off the memories, not wanting to dwell on how several of those pieces had never been finished after Jax’s death.
Marie cast about the conversation to anchor herself. They’d been talking about Em’s dishes… Her eyes caught on how her bowl was highlights in crimson rather than the delicate gold of Naj’s bowl.
“Yeah… Chris broke the first plate – I thought he’d die. Em didn’t seem to care though, she just makes something new if something does get broken. Took her forever to convince Chris that it was okay, he was really upset. Then Travis broke the next one a few weeks later. That’s why not all of the dishes quite match anymore.” Her smile turned affectionate as she stared down at her empty bowl. “I like it better this way though, I think it suits Asylum.”
He laughed, the sound an abrupt bark against his otherwise quiet mood. He flashed her a smile that was part embarrassment, part apology.
“I like that. I like it quite a lot.”
He stood and reached for her bowl. “Let’s tidy up and perhaps you can show me more of this mad place that doesn’t quite match itself.”
He took both bowls to sink where he’d watched Marie wash the spoon earlier.
“Sure!” She hopped up after him, and helped him rinse both bowls before setting them and the utensils into the dishwasher for a later cycle. Marie briefly explained that whoever filled the dishwasher ran it, but until then, rinsing the dishes was good enough.
“So, what would you like to see next? Dev showed you some of the downstairs last night, didn’t she?”
“I was shown around somewhat, yes.”
He looked out over the bar into the Great Room, still just as overwhelmed by the wall of electronics. He’d rather leave that be for now.
“Why don’t we just start however you’d normally go about your day?”
It was a good a place to start as any, and this way, he wouldn’t have to feel guilty for disrupting her day.
“Oh, okay. Um…” She bit her lip, thinking about what she would normally do if it were just her. If it were her… Maleo would probably be offering to help her with her dance routines right now.
She wilted slightly, remembering their fight last night. She hated fights… And he’d been her best friend. Things had been rocky since Jax had died, but he still helped her with a lot of her duets—Travis couldn’t dance, Chris had his duets with Lena, Matthew was usually with Carrie, Ro was usually with Em, Kain would do it if he wasn’t busy with something else…
Marie realized that Naj was still waiting for an answer. She smiled slightly, though she felt sick inside.
“I’d probably be practicing duets, but Mal… I don’t think he’s here today.”
Her emotions were a tangled mess, sadness tinged with guilt and anger. Naj crumpled, falling in on himself when what he thought had been a good idea backfired so horribly. He tried to look hopeful when he asked, “I doubt there’s any way I can help with that then, is there?”
His reaction made Marie feel worse, realizing that she’d let Mal’s stupid bias upset Naj anyway. He wasn’t here to be mean, but he was still making her pull away from her new friend. She reached out to Naj, determined to fix that. She rested a hand on his arm and tried to make her smile more genuine and relaxed.
“You could be my partner for the day if you want.”
He brightened, though remained uncertain. The small physical gesture did much to comfort him, though he doubted Marie understood what it meant to him. To be touched without thought, for a serpent, was home. Even the relatively subdued Dai serpents still touched one another while speaking, dancing, eating, as naturally as breathing. Naj knew what his recent isolation had cost him, intellectually, but it wasn’t until he’d regained that comfort that he truly understood what he had been missing. For the first time in his life, he had been alone. Now, he wasn’t sure if he could remember how not to be. Could he dance these unfamiliar steps? Did his heart still beat to Li’Daea’s song?
Naj searched Marie’s face, looking for some sign, though of what, he did not know.
“Do you really think I could? I mean, I don’t know any of the dances, but I’d do my best…”
Just the hopeful look on his face made her feel better and her grin widened. “Of course! I have one that’s really almost a solo, so it’d be really easy for you to learn the other part.”
She bounced on her feet, excited now that she was thinking about dancing with him.
Her energy was catching, and so his answering nods became little more than rapid bobbing of his head.
“Yes! The sooner I start learning the dances of this nest, the better. Right?”
She tucked her arm into his, pulling him towards the upstairs. “Yep! And soon you’ll be coming up with stuff all on your own! We do lots of different types of dances, so don’t feel like you have to just do stuff like what I do.”
“Oh yes?” he said, falling into step with her. She didn’t leave him with much choice, but he found he didn’t mind. Her familiarity with him was comforting, as was the feel of her bubbly enthusiasm against his skin. It felt like home, like kindred. Of course, Marie wasn’t a proper serpent, but this certainly felt like a proper serpent’s nest. “Perhaps then, I shall have to teach you something of the serpents’ dances in return.”
She grinned. “I’d like that, I don’t know anything about serpent dances.”
Marie paused before she got on the steps. Something about what she’d just said made her think a little harder. “Well, maybe a bit? Nica does some of a more traditional kind of dancing, and I think Nat said it’s based on serpent style.”
It was getting easier and more natural to say Nica’s name again. She’d been gone a long time, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t talk about her. Most of what Marie knew about dancing she’d learned from her. Nica had taken her in, had given her a home, and had taught her how to dance. She had encouraged her to branch out and learn what styles she liked best, but the basics of timing and listening to the music? That was all Nica’s teaching.
Just because Marie was the one helping the new dancer find his feet in the nest… It didn’t mean Nica wasn’t ever coming back. She pushed the uneasy thought away and focused on the happier ones. Like thinking of how much fun she’d had learning dances from Nica. And how much fun she was going to have dancing with Naj now.