In which Naj and Marie drive Seth and Maleo crazy.
Naj opened his mouth to correct Marie’s posture, but let it go. Let her be like a little one, learning the joy of dance for the first time. If she asked him for further guidance, he would offer it, but he wasn’t going to bog either of them down with “hold your hands more forward” or “it should be left over right”. As long as her posture wasn’t posing any risk of injury, it wasn’t important.
Naj even almost let himself believe it.
With his usual headshake, he dismissed his thoughts to put himself into the here and now. Dance was about being present, no matter the goal. Naj wondered if he could literally dispel his memories with enough headshaking. Perhaps with enough “hip wiggling”, as Marie had said.
He began to step one foot to the other, creating a gentle rocking rhythm in his body. “Let your body sway where you stand, passing back and forth along the central line that runs from your feet to your head.”
He waited until she began the steps, nodding in encouragement. “Feel your line extending below you into the earth, and above you into the heavens. Feel that line pass through the center of you, and find that place within that is the center of your being.” He spoke slowly, softly, giving her the chance to absorb each point before moving on to the next. He focused heavily on the gentle pulse of her emotions against his own, to the point that he almost forgot to align his own energies. But centuries of repetition had its advantage, and Naj’s own magic was centering itself without his conscious direction. He continued to guide them both with his words, each lesson falling from his lips by rote.
“Feel the space at your center stretch and pulse, growing longer as you stretch out, and shrinking it back on itself as your muscles contact.” He let his body go with the rhythm, the steady one-two, one-two, one-two working its way into his breath and his pulse. Where his aura brushed against hers, he felt quiet concentration, and something beneath he couldn’t quite place… Longing? Loneliness? Peacefulness? He couldn’t get a clear read on it, and it was distracting him from his own work, so he let it go. He could come to know his new nestmates soon enough. Now was the time to learn his new li’sumae.
But he was still the leader of this exercise, and it was up to him to make sure the entire circle was keeping up—even if it was only a circle of two. When he’d found his own balance again, he opened eyes he hadn’t realized he’d closed and searched Marie’s face. “Can you feel it?”
The posture reminded Maleo too much of a swaying snake ready to strike. He shifted his weight between his feet, antsy to be relegated to only watching. How he wished she would have just listened to him last night…
“Mhmm…” Marie nodded, still swaying on her feet. It was fun, letting her body feel longer and having her tail sway with her rhythm.
Seth wanted to punch the bird in the teeth. He reminded himself not to jump to conclusions—but who else would hate a serpent so instantly and be so gifted at hiding that rage? The way the violence surged and disappeared spoke of the famous avian reserve—and it was completely distracting. Seth realized that despite his efforts to insulate Naj from the rage, they had been dancing to the rhythm of the pulsing anger. He couldn’t allow that. Let the bird stew in his own misery. To let it taint Li’Daea’s joy was something Seth refused to tolerate. He wrapped the fox’s happiness closer around them and did his best to shut the anger out without lowering his guard.
Naj’s rhythm slipped easily into the push and pull of Marie’s own pulse. Such a demonstrative dancer was easy to blend with, seamless to follow. Except…
Maybe it was the echoes of her uncertainty from earlier, but something was snagging at the edges of his awareness. Naj watched her for signs of distress, but she seemed intent on their rhythm. He let them continue to rock a few moments more, then guided them onward.
“When you’re ready, let your lead foot come down flat when you step.”
He slowed their pace, pausing on the down step so she could see the emphasis of it. Such a variation could be troublesome to master, if it fell contrary to your perceived rhythm. Without any actual music, Naj wasn’t sure how it would affect his student.
“Can you feel it, or would a beat help, or…”
He trailed off, reminding himself to give Marie a chance to speak for herself.
She stared at his foot, trying to pinpoint exactly what he was doing while not stopping her own rocking. Once she saw it, it was easy enough to do. Down, then up, down, then up… One, two, one, two… She could almost hear Nica’s voice softly counting in her head.
“I think I have it.” Her voice was soft, her focus entirely in her feet.
The bobbing of her tail had been hard to ignore before, but the way it circled with this step variation arrested his attention completely. He could almost see the spectral trail of flames it left in its wake…
Naj jumped when she spoke, stumbling a bit. Shame flushed his cheeks, but Marie was too caught up in the step to notice. It astounded him that such intense emotion was completely lost on his companion, but he was grateful. He composed himself quickly, and just to be sure to cover his slip, he moved them along before he could lose his focus again.
“Once you fall into that rhythm, slowly move it further out in front of you until you’re down on one knee.” He demonstrated, lowering himself down to the stage and pulling his leading leg back in line with the other so he was on both knees by the time he’d finished. He continued the rocking motion up the line of his torso, but kept himself still from the hips down. The careful control of the motion helped him get a handle on his emotions as well, as did the familiar litany.
“Keep your focus on your center of gravity. Go as slowly as you need to—feel the balance of each stance before moving on to the next. This is your chance to discover slick patches of grass, loose soil or floor boards, slope to the ground—any surprises your dance space may have in store.”
She frowned a bit, tilting her head to watch him move. She was pretty sure she understood what he was saying, but she was sure of it when he did just as he said. Once she was more certain of her next actions, she let herself catch back up in his words. She giggled, thinking of surprises of the stage around them. “Like trapdoors?”
Her comment baffled him to the point that he stopped completely. “Trap…doors?”
She paused in her own movement, glancing up to blink at him. “Yeah—trapdoors in a stage? We have a couple for acts that require quick exits or entrances.” She wrinkled her nose, remembering the few times she’d needed to use them. “It’s a tight squeeze under there, but we rarely use them anyway.”
Naj boggled, then realized his mistake. The elements of a serpent’s village had allowed him to forget where he was. Tired humor laced his voice as he asked the question he already knew the answer to. “There’s no well under there, is there?”
Now it was Marie’s turn to be utterly confused. “Well? Like water?”
Maleo frowned hard when the pair of them suddenly stopped. There was something off about that snake. Even more so than him just being a cold-blooded, heartless manipulator. The more he spoke, the more obvious it became. Maybe that would be enough to deter Marie, but Maleo doubted his solution would come that easily.
Naj settled back on his heels and cast his gaze downward, sheepishly. “Yes. As I said, there are many distinctly serpent elements to the club’s layout, including the shape of the stage. In a serpent’s village, the li’sumae is made of three round stones placed over the top of our central well. I suppose…” He drew a deep breath, steadying himself. His eyes were soft when he brought them back to Marie’s. “I suppose I simply let myself get carried away. Shall we continue?”
“Oh.” She looked around the stage and surrounding area, trying to see the layout as he might. “That makes sense, from what Nat says, Nica and Dev designed everything together. If it seems familiar then maybe it’s because Nica wanted it that way.” She gave him a wider smile.
“I get carried away all the time myself, don’t worry about it.”
He returned her smile, rising back up to his knees. “Would you like me to show you the lowering movements again?”
“Yes, please.” She was glad he’d made the offer, she’d already forgotten what they were doing. As he repeated the motion, she resumed the rocking pattern they’d already established, then followed along as best she could.
Marie lowered her front foot, but continued rocking. It was awkward, but not undoable. Keep moving forward… Her tail actually helped a lot in this case, helping keep her center of gravity beneath her, rather than in the foot that was moving. The trick was going to be lowering herself and keep moving. Marie bit her lip as she hit one knee, then smiled once she maneuvered the other underneath her.
Naj watched her, fascinated at the twitches and adjustments her tail made. His animal form really wasn’t that much different from his human one, especially in a long line dance like this one. The possibilities of a tail for balance and the way it would shape one’s moves…
He wavered, leaning too far backward over his hips and losing his balance. It didn’t take much to recover, but the falter did bring his attention back to what he was doing. Some centering dance, scatter brain. Your thoughts have been all over the place since you started. It’s a tail, get over it.
Seth’s temper was growing short, and he knew it. It usually wasn’t difficult to be patient with Naj, but the agitation radiating off whoever was watching them was infectious. Seth wished he could excuse himself a moment, go confront the avian—or whoever it might be—and continue their dance in peace. He could certainly use the grounding and centering himself, after the night they’d had. But Seth held his tongue, and did his best to keep the agitation at bay, so that Naj could dance.
Naj drew a deep breath to focus himself, dismissing the voice of doubt in his head. He could do this. The il’li’ramn was the start of nearly every summoning ritual, it was as familiar to him as his second skin. Which gave him an idea…
“From here on, think of yourself as a serpent in a snake charmer’s basket.” He grinned, flashing a little fang. “If you’ll pardon the expression.” “Snake” was really a rather rude term, meant as an insult more often than not, but “serpent charmer” just sounded silly. And Marie hadn’t seemed offended, besides.
He continued rolling the muscles of his torso, but the motion stopped dead at his hips “The basket itself doesn’t dance when the charmer plays, only the serpent sways as it rises up… Let your lower half become still and solid, like the floor you dance upon. When you’ve isolated the movement to just your upper body, slowly sit back on your feet so that you’re even more solid.”
She laughed, grinning back at him. He was a joy to dance with. “Okay, like a serpent in a basket.” She tried isolating her hips from the movement, rolling the motion with her stomach and ribs, but keeping the rest of her still.
Gently, she lowered her hips down to her feet, finding it was a little easier to keep them still in this position.
Mal gritted his teeth as her laughter tinkled back to him. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Calm. He had to stay calm, he made her laugh, no crime in that. Or in lulling her into a false sense of security. So long as Maleo was keeping an eye on them, no harm would come to her. Let her be happy, if oblivious, he would be even more vigilant.
“Alright, we’re almost done.”
Naj spoke more softly than he had been, letting his tone breed stillness.
“Start moving your thoughts from motion to stillness. Let the motion drain from your torso, and become still in body and mind.”
He took several deep breaths, exaggerating the sound to encourage Marie to follow him. Each breath was slightly longer than the last, the space between inhaling and exhaling becoming a seemingly eternal pause as the quiet settled into their souls.
“Lay your upper body down along the floor, hands stretched out in front of you, face to the floor. Just rest there, feeling the stillness of the ground beneath you. Melt into the ground and know that you are stillness.”
Again, he led in the motion, folding at the waist to let his upper body meet the floor. He had to remind himself to put his hands palm down, instead of leaving them up in the supplicant’s position, but other than that small slip he had managed to divorce himself from the past and just embrace the peace of this dance form. He leaned his forehead into the stage and let out a long breath, expelling the last of the motion from his body.
She shifted slightly to allow for her tail, then straightened her tail out from her body to complete the line. Bending at the waist, she stilled her stomach, chest, arms, letting herself melt into the floor as Naj had instructed. Her forehead met the cool stage and she exhaled, giving in to the stillness. It was peaceful.
Mal tensed as Marie took her eyes off the snake to bow to him. She should know better. He loved her trusting nature, but he wished she was a little more wary. Jax had nearly killed her and what was she doing? Blindly trusting another snake.
Seth was not so foolish as to blindly drop his guard around the hostile presence in the shadows. While Naj let every worry and knot melt away into the floor, Seth drew his senses taunt and coiled to spring. It wasn’t helping his agitation at all, but that was of little consequence. Whatever it took to get Naj through this moment.
When he was ready, Naj rolled over and flopped out on his back, posture completely devoid of any decorum. He spread his arms and legs like a starfish and just enjoyed the feeling of simply lying there. Belatedly, he remembered to invite Marie to do the same. He rolled over onto his stomach and propped his face on his hands to look at her.
“After the centering ritual, if you’re not going to move into a related piece, most people like to just lounge about, enjoying the languid feeling in their limbs. Feel free to flop at will.”
She let her body completely relax, stretching her arms out in front of her as she straightened her legs out. With a happy sigh, she let her tail wag above her, touching it to her head and then lolling it in a circle. While she often had her tail out, she didn’t often stretch it out and it felt good to do so now. She settled it between her legs for the moment.
“Mm, it does feel good to just relax.”
Marie rested her head on one outstretched arm, watching Naj through half closed eyes. She could feel them slipping into the amber of the fox, but she let it go. Honestly she liked the amber better than her human brown anyways. The only reason she didn’t wear them more often was because the vertical pupil tended to bother some people and she wasn’t quite good enough to just shift the color without the pupil shifting too.
Naj gave a satisfied hum, blinking slowly in languid pleasure. He was glad he could help Marie unwind, after the horrid night she’d had. He was happy to be of service.
“Well, relax away then. We can practice your dances whenever you’re ready.”
He rolled back over onto his back to stare up at the rafters, eyes fixed on nothing and a smile fixed on his face.
“Sometimes it’s good to just do nothing.”
She could feel her muscles wanting to just melt into the floor. If she stayed like that too long, she might fall back asleep. The idea made her giggle softly and she stretched her hands and toes out.