In which Naj and Marie dance with partners unseen.
Maleo was looking down on the Asylum stage, watching the new reptile dance with his Marie. He didn’t know this dance, but something about it set his feathers on edge.
Maybe it was the way they moved, how she kept backing away and he kept pushing into her. Or maybe it was the look on the snake’s face, hungry and anticipatory.
It wasn’t until Marie’s back was turned that Maleo realized he could see the glint of fang from the stranger’s mouth. He reared back, pulled her to him, and struck before Maleo could shout a warning…
Maleo woke with a scream strangled in his throat. One hand clutched at the air, his other hand mired down by the blanket. His breath came in shallow pants as he tried to reorient himself.
He wasn’t at Asylum. He was at Xavier’s compound, on the other side of the river. It had been a while since he’d slept at the vampires’ place, but it had been obvious he wasn’t welcome at Asylum tonight.
Not with that new snake in residence.
He stared into the dark, disliking the sudden revelation that it brought. If this became more frequent… If he wasn’t welcome to stay at Asylum anymore… Well, Xavier would start to question Maleo’s usefulness. The last thing Maleo could afford was the loss of Xavier’s favor.
He kicked the blankets off, unable to take the stifling heat and weight of them anymore. He was suddenly furious – at himself, at the threat of losing Xavier’s support, at the new serpent taking away Marie, at how the snake was already straining their friendship…
Mal had left her alone with him. As much as he hated serpents for their lascivious disregard, he should never have left her alone with him. Who knew what damage had already been done…
He slipped out of the bed quickly, grabbing his shirt from the night before off the floor. Soon he was in the corridor and out of the compound. Seconds after that he was in the air and on his way back to where he needed to be.
Maleo hardly saw the rooftop between landing and shifting, he was so intent on the door. As his hand clenched around the metal doorknob though, he realized a fine rage was still trembling in his limbs. The flight from Xavier’s had hardly calmed his nerves and now he took a deep breath, pulling away from the door.
He turned away, casting his gaze over the gardens. Kain’s gardens. His lips tightened. He had to get better control of himself before he went downstairs—it was possible no one would notice his state today, but if anyone did it would be Kain. It had probably been a good thing he hadn’t run across the nosy cat last night.
He rotated his shoulders, trying to let go of the image of dark serpents with glittering eyes and hissing taunts, circling Marie, rearing back…
Maleo shuddered away from the remnants of his dreams. If he fixated, there was no way he was going to calm down. He had to do this, for Marie. The poor girl was so tenderhearted; he knew she would never keep her guard up around that cold-blooded fiend. She would never see it coming, so he would have to watch for her.
That was it. Just think of Marie – the way her eyes sparkled when she laughed, the way she tossed her wild mane of fiery hair over her shoulder…
When he felt he had replaced all thoughts of malicious snakes out of his head with thoughts of his sweet, loving Marie, he went inside.
He was almost to the stairs that led to the second story balcony when voices made him pause. Maleo glanced over the railing, then quickly tucked himself into the shadow of a pillar when the pair of them pushed through the curtains onto the stage.
Of course Marie and that snake would be awake. Their laughter was like nails on a chalkboard, making his jaw clench until it ached.
Marie released Naj’s arm to open the door between the downstairs and the backstage area. She paused with her hand on the knob, caught up in their conversation. “Nica taught me to dance – she taught most of us here, but I was really young when I first came here and I don’t remember what she called any of it, if she even called it anything. Mostly I remember trying really hard to make my body do what hers did.” She laughed, covering her mouth with one hand as if she could physically stop herself from babbling. She didn’t want to overwhelm him again, but she was just so excited to have a new friend in the nest.
Naj didn’t recognize the name Marie kept using, though he didn’t have every one committed to memory yet, certainly. He didn’t think he’d met anyone called Nica, but if she’d taught all the dancers here, Naj was sure he’d meet her soon enough. Her serpent influence was clear from the aesthetics to many of the dancers he’d watched from the rafters, though as Marie had said, no one had moved quite like a serpent. Naj couldn’t recall seeing anyone he’d actually thought of as kindred, until Dev. Then again, he’d been quite mistaken there, so perhaps he’d simply overlooked Nica as well? But he couldn’t imagine a dance master that would allow themselves to be overlooked by a new dancer…
Seth pushed against the darker memories for what felt like the millionth time that day alone. He didn’t like how Naj kept reaching, how this place reminded him so much of their past—a past Naj shouldn’t remember. Couldn’t remember, for his own good.
He shivered as they crossed the threshold to the upstairs, ripples from the ward washing over him. It was comforting to know they rested so securely, but disconcerting to think he hadn’t recognized the demonic aura from the moment he’d set foot in Asylum. Seth was grateful to be a summoner no more—he’d clearly lost more of his skill than his lingering habits might let on.
No wonder Naj’s thought kept drifting back to the Dai. Seth himself was brooding on them, unable to shake the sense of dread that clung to his skin. …Unusually so, for such a vibrant and lively nest. Something wasn’t right…
Seth glanced around the backstage, searching around the scattered racks and shadowed corners for… something. It was just a feeling, but a serpent knew well exactly how important mere “feelings” could be.
He turned Naj’s thoughts back to his conversation with Marie, hoping to distract his charge so that he could work free of distraction. There was something lingering in the air, though it was harder to read around the lingering stage energy The Three Pillars held life and joy like a stone held sunlight, radiating warmth into the empty club. He wondered again which dancer might be Nica, and what to expect from an instructor that married serpent tradition with modern innovation. Perhaps he could entangle Naj in inquiries of what to expect of this Nica.
“Is it like her, this Nica, to stick close to tradition? If you were young, she’d have likely started with the prim’narix and the pri’ramn- does that sound at all familiar?”
“Um… Not at all.” She laughed again, wrinkling her nose apologetically. “Like I said, I mostly remember her body more than words. It wasn’t easy to figure out how to move my hips like she did… Really, I don’t think I ever figured it out. Em’s much better at hip wiggling than me.”
She fell quiet a moment as she thought about those first few years in the nest. She’d been so young and confused… Nica had given her something to focus her energy on, had been the first one not to act like her fire was a scary curse. Nica had reassured her by telling her stories of fire dances that she could teach Marie when she had better control of her gift.
It was still awkward, missing Nica. The past two years felt so unreal—Asylum just wasn’t the same without her, but no one wanted to be the one to say it, so no one really brought her up anymore. She pushed the awkwardness aside with a shrug. Talking about Nica right now was making her happy, and she liked focusing on the happy times that they’d had. And all the happy times she had ahead.
“So what is the… Pree…” She trailed off, unsure of how to mimic what he’d said.
Seth startled when Marie spoke again. Honestly, he’d hardly been listening, so hadn’t noticed when she’d fallen quiet. Something was prickling at the edges of his awareness, making his skin jump like a horse plagued by flies. While he’d been encouraging Naj to relax, Seth himself couldn’t ignore the tinge of threat tingling between his shoulder blades. Apparently, his intent focus was dominating their mental landscape. Seth pushed Naj back to the forward, encouraging him to engage with Marie, then resumed his scan of the club, though admittedly with a less intense gaze.
Naj couldn’t make sense of the emotions humming against his skin. That wasn’t uncommon when someone felt conflicted, but he couldn’t even guess at why Marie might feel that way. She seemed happy, but it wasn’t the pervasive bubbling joy of moments before. Then again, Naj’s own recollections of his earliest dance instruction were conflicted at best—but that thought did nothing to ease any of his own misgivings. Better to focus on what they had now, rather than all that had been. Marie had expressed interest in learning more about serpent culture, and this was a perfect place to start.
“Pri’ramn– the first dances. Like pri’mn is the first song. Primel means first, before, or past.” Before he could fall into a full blown lecture, he caught himself, the buzz of the backstage energy filling his limbs. The best way to teach her was how all serpents learned their first lessons—dance.
“Let me show you the il’li’ramn, the balancing step. It’s fairly easy to learn, if you don’t know it already, and it’s the customary way to adjust to a new space, so it will be beneficial to both of us.”
Marie nodded. She was excited to have a distraction from her strange trails of thought. She didn’t feel sad anymore, not really, but there was a feeling of something missing still. She missed Nica, but it wasn’t the same pang of loss that it used to be.
Besides, she always felt better when she was doing something and new dances would be fun for both of them.
“I’d like that.” She moved through the backstage area quickly, eager now to get to their dancing. When she hit the steps that led to the curtained doorways that opened to the stage proper, she paused just long enough to make sure Naj didn’t trip on the few narrow steps. Then she pushed aside the curtain that opened to the stage.
“So you’ll show me the… Eee lee ram and I’ll show you… Well, I don’t have a name for mine, sorry.” She wrinkled her nose as she laughed softly—more at herself than at him.
He joined her in her mirth, enjoying the sense of camaraderie. It was nice to laugh with someone, instead of feeling compelled by the group to laugh at them for their mistakes. He pushed away the dark memories that came with that thought, and focused instead on the here and now, and teaching Marie.
“The il’li is balance, and ramn is dance. There are charin’ramn and areta’ramn—all manner of dances. But this is the one we use to center ourselves, with our surroundings and with the ARE—the whole of creation.”
He had moved to the center of the stage as he spoke, and now he spread his arms wide, turning a slow circle to take in all of the space around them.
Naj took a deep breath to draw in the scents and essences of the now, to ground him in the present. He could smell the drapes, soft with a hint of dust. The echoes of joy and exhilaration vibrated through the floor, mixed with the determination and focus of hours of dedicated practice. The stage itself smelled musty, of many warm bodies pounding many years of sweat into its floor. The tell-tale hints of spice and musk spoke of the many second skins of those who danced here—wolves, felines, avians, and… hyenas? Interesting to find leh’Den here…The whole space also smelled faintly of …vanilla? with a chemical note that Naj did not recognize. But never mind that, he was sure he’d learn all there was to a modern staging quickly enough.
Nothing. While Naj paced the floor, Seth had stretched his awareness around the space, seeking the source of the unsettled emotions. The only pattern he could discern was that the feeling increased when he neared Marie, but it wasn’t coming from her.
Still, if someone meant them harm, Seth intended to draw them out. He urged Naj further into conversation with Marie, willed him to take up a relaxed and distracted posture. Seth would watch his back, as he always had.
Naj turned inward to face Marie, his back to the empty club. “The il’li ramn is as much about aligning your body with the space you will dance in as it about aligning your spirit within your body. If you’re in a traveling troupe, there’s not always time to be as familiar with your performing area as you’d like, though most serpents will have a li’sumae, a triple dais set up much like this stage.”
He paused, realizing he was sort of rambling. Marie had expressed interest in learning from him, but he also didn’t know what Nica might have already taught her. He didn’t want to be patronizing, but her certainly didn’t want to overwhelm her…
You could try actually conversing with the girl, and let her tell you for herself.
Naj nodded, a little shakily, but a deep breath put him back on course. The hint of self-deprecating humor so familiar to him touched his smile when he continued. “Be sure to stop me if I’m covering things you’ve already learned, or moving too quickly over things you don’t, alright? I don’t want to be a bore, but you did say that you’d like to learn more about serpent culture?” He made it a question, inviting her to set the pace of their “lesson”.
Just the sound of the snake talking grated at his already frayed nerves. Maleo didn’t know what all those fancy words meant, but it was clear that it was enchanting Marie. Fucking reptile was taking advantage of her naivety. Of course Marie loved learning new things, and her sweet excitement would keep her from seeing what that snake was actually after.
He squeezed his fist and relaxed it, trying to relieve some of his tension. After last night, he couldn’t just interrupt and talk sense into Marie. She was still too upset with him. No, he’d have to wait until the snake did something obvious enough that even she couldn’t ignore it. He just hoped that whatever it was wasn’t too bad – how far could he let this go before it was too much?
Worry creased his brow. If he acted without Marie knowing why again… She might never forgive him. If only she could see what he could…
“Oh, I do! I’m enjoying listening to you talk.” She laughed. “I’m usually the one doing all the talking, I promise to ask questions when I have them – actually, it’d probably be harder for me not to.” She shrugged her shoulders with a grin as she poked fun at herself.
There was the enthusiasm he’d been missing. Already, Naj was growing accustomed to the warmth of Marie’s joy against his skin. Simply being around the happy little fox was like burrowing deep in a beloved blanket, safe and warm. He beamed at her, his own smile a reflection of her happiness. Impulsively, he closed the distance between them and hugged her.
She made a soft high pitched sound of happiness, wrapping her arms about him tightly. Marie was overjoyed that he’d reached out to her. She liked hugs and how easily he got overwhelmed had worried her. She didn’t want to upset him, but she also knew that she’d forget herself pretty easily if she got excited.
Marie didn’t even know what he was thanking her about, but she was happy he was happy.
For a moment, Maleo forgot to breathe. All he saw was the snake lunging forward, grabbing Marie, rearing back and sinking his fangs into her neck… He was gripping the railing—the cold edge biting into his palm before he realized it was just a flashback.
Maleo edged back against the column, hands cold and trembling. What was he thinking? Of course Marie would need proof that the snake was out to get her, but could he really let her keep putting herself in such danger? If that snake had actually made the lunge to bite… There was nothing Maleo could do from this distance. She would be infected and dying before he could even touch her, let alone save her.
He was gambling with her life. The tightrope he was walking was suddenly, dizzyingly clear.
The ebbing and flowing emotion spiked, and it was only Marie’s arms around them that kept Seth from sprinting toward the source. Someone was watching them from upstairs, and that someone meant them clear harm. Here, upstairs and not behind the safety of the ward, it could be anyone, but Seth was almost certain it was the bird from the night before. He froze, straining every sense he had in the direction of the outburst, but it was gone as suddenly as it came. Then he realized he was still moving—Marie’s happy waggling. Seth released the tension in their muscles, slipping back into the darkness.
Naj had to laugh when he found himself swaying in time with the motion of her wagging tail. “Clearly, we’re going to make wonderful dance partners.”
“Oh, yes!” She beamed up at him, pleased that he thought so too.
Naj pulled away before her happiness swallowed him whole again. There were never going to get anything done this way. Somehow, he didn’t think he’d mind, but he had promised to teach Marie the il’li-ramn.
He moved back towards the middle of the stage again, tucking his hands behind his back and he paced a small circle. “We start at the center of our dance space. If you’re unfamiliar with the place, you might pace the edges, do a few spins, whatever makes you feel you know the limits you’ll be dancing in.” He paused, feeling slightly sheepish. “It’s silly, but I feel as if I already know this place?” He made it a question, as if he wasn’t sure he was allowed to feel familiar with it. But the triple stack of the dais—stage, he reminded himself—and the “resting room” Dev had taken him to, so much like an il’soum to match the li’sumae… The serpent influence in the design of the space was clear.
Maleo was able to relax more when the snake put distance between himself and Marie. He was still spouting nonsense and sucking her further into his delusions, but at least Maleo could get to her with that space between her and the snake. Words he could contest later, words were impermanent and only did so much damage.
Her grin softened slightly and her joy found a new expression as she bounced on the balls of her feet. She watched him walk the stage, getting to know the space they’d be dancing in. “I know what you mean. I wasn’t here very long before it felt like home to me too.”
Again, the emotions coming off of her baffled him, almost like they didn’t belong to the same person, but when Naj turned back to look at her, she seemed her energetic self, bouncing on the balls of her feet. Which called him back to task.
“Well, I see you’ve already got your feet warmed up.” He grinned and drew himself up on his own toes, crossing his arms at the wrists in a long line over his head. “Shall we begin?”
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