In which talons and fires collide.
Mal clenched his hands so hard, he knew there’d be bloody crescents in his palms later. To watch Marie throw herself at that snake was almost too much to stand. The only thing that saved the thing’s life was that it kept backing away from her. Still, that was tempered by the fact that the movement was choreographed into the dance. For all he knew, that stupid reptile wanted to throw himself at her. In fact, it wasn’t moving nearly as quickly away as he should. Was it lingering? Mal studied his movements for intent.
A fine trembling radiated throughout his body, his eyes becoming molten gold. It was bad enough when the movements were hurried brushes, but now they were becoming firmer, longer grinds… It was just obscene.
He started forward, intent on stopping this abomination, but a motion off to his side made him freeze.
Then Mal began to curse silently.
That damn hawk was back.
Nica moved across the darkened balcony towards the stairs, a smile creasing her lips as she recognized the music playing. A popular piece, a favorite of a face she’d ached to see again. Her pace quickened, feet carrying her faster than doubts could fly.
Her motion halted when she realized she wasn’t alone up here.
She stared at the silhouette for several seconds before she was able to identify it. Maleo.
The grackle was too still, his normally harried and quick motions held in check. His hair was longer than she remembered, but the tight twist of his lips was the same. His aura was held so close to his body, it was a wonder she had noticed him at all.
She began to walk towards him, though her step held caution now. His posture was too stiff, his attention too intent on the stage. Even with his aura clamped down so tightly, his stillness wore the signs of a rage ready to explode.
That much anger… Only Marie invoked such strong emotion from the reserved avian. She could see the fury in his limbs now that she was looking for it. To be so upset over Marie… Well, that told her who she was performing the duet with then. Maleo’s bigotry had always been his biggest weakness.
The hawk caught his eye and narrowed her gaze, flashing heat and scarlet his way. Mal knew the warning for what it was. Nica had never liked him. From the start, she hadn’t liked that Dev had hired him without asking the hawk’s permission– even though it was Devin’s damned business in the first place. Mal had figured she didn’t like the reminder of who was really in charge here, Nica was always watching, always sticking her nose where it wasn’t wanted.
He didn’t care if she liked him, he didn’t like her either. He’d thought another avian would understand, but the damn woman was a snake lover. After she’d suckerpunched him for calling Jax out for what he was, Mal had made a point ever since to avoid her. As much as his job would allow.
He pushed away from the pillar, hurrying past her to get back to the roof. Nica wouldn’t let anything happen to Marie, she was good for that much. Besides, he could always catch up with the snake later, when that snake sympathizer was gone. Anything he did now would only get him kicked out of the nest and if that happened, who knew what would happen to Marie? No, better to retreat now and figure out another way to keep that cold blooded monster away from his Marie.
Once she was sure he was gone, Nica approached the balcony edge to see what had riled Maleo so.
She recognized from the music this was one of Marie’s favorites. The enthusiastic kit loved turning the tables on the usual male pursuer, the high energy of it. It was meant for the man to be unsure and intrigued despite himself, but the poor dancer with her now just looked utterly uncomfortable in his own skin. He didn’t seem to be following the script, but genuinely trying to get away.
Everything was so much worse now that he was actually in the chair. If Naj thought he’d been uncomfortable before, simply watching Marie dance… In everything she did, she seemed so playful and carefree, almost a child. And it was clear she was still playing now. Her body was obviously familiar with the steps of seduction, but her bubbling laughter was still easy and light. And yet…
He pressed his back into the chair, squirming to get away. It was a relief when the choreography brought them to the point that he was allowed to actually run. Not that Marie let him get very far. Her eyes sparkled with laughter, and it was clear she was having a marvelous time. Naj was beginning to feel ill.
The absurdity of what she was seeing almost made her wonder if Dev had been mistaken. Nica had never known a serpent to withdraw from the heat of a dance, let alone the heat of a willing partner – and especially not a bloodline known for its passion like a cobra.
But she doubted Dev would be wrong about something like a red cobra. No, that sort of detail she would make no errors over – red cobras were rare, practically unheard of except in far between anecdotes. She knew Dev would be chomping at the bit to take advantage of such a specimen, eager to claim his uniqueness for her own gain.
She’d described him as feral on the phone. Nica hadn’t given it much thought at the time, since going feral was a common stress reaction for shifters, but what she was seeing down there… He moved with a quick nervousness whenever Marie drew too close. But it wasn’t just the desperate need for escape she would expect from a cornered animal. A feral serpent’s first response was usually to shift, as a smaller form was easier to hide. Failing that, a cobra would posture against the pursuit and if the warning went unheeded… Strike.
And as if that weren’t enough, venomous bloodlines were also known for having magic as well. Those gifts mirroring the scales of their serpent, a red cobra would likely have fire magic. Just the thought sent a shiver down Nica’s spine. The stage was warded against Marie’s foxfire, but a serpent’s, a cobra’s? That was a different beast and made the scene below her all the more worrisome.
There was the slim possibility that his line was one of the few that didn’t carry any potential for magic, or had dwindled in power over the ages like most shifter magic, but she knew better than to hang the safety of her nest on such a chance. She needed to get down there, before the situation escalated.
The sparks of emotion he’d felt off Marie’s dream were nothing compared to this. She was fire, wild and unforgiving, burning out of control, and she kept touching him. Every time her skin pressed against his, he was force fed a little more heat, a little more passion, until he was consumed with it. This hurt, but in a way that he couldn’t make sense of. He was acclimated to pain, he’d been taught to endure so much, but this…
Nica kept her gaze locked on the pair as she hurried down the stairs, quickly but carefully, so as not to startle them. The serpent swayed out of Marie’s grasp again and again. She could practically feel his chill from here, even in the midst of a dance. That worried her. If anything, he should have been too warm, even without the fire magic. Serpents lived and breathed ki’n, the heat of passion. It was what drove their hearts and their drums. It was easy to let it go when they went feral, their animal kin’s cooler nature prevailing. For him to seem so cold from such a distance… Well, it certainly spoke of how long he’d been “away”.
It also meant this much heat and passion, so persistent and aggressive, would be painful. Like a man left in the ice for too long, warming him again needed to be a slow and careful process. Knowing this, Nica would have chosen a dance that was more sensual than sexual, designed to draw out rather than pursue. She couldn’t expect Marie to have known better though. The kit would have only thought about the playfulness of the dance, not the aggression behind it. She supposed in this instance they were both lucky that his fire wasn’t responding in the usual feral fashion to the aggressor pursuing him. Giving Mal a reason to intercede would have done no one any favors.
He couldn’t get away. Even when the fox danced away, Naj still burned. The fire was inside him. Heat tore through him, filling his vision and searing his muscles into place. His heart fluttered, helpless against the pounding of the music and fire that filled his veins. The ki’n was going to kill him.
The cobra fell deadly still, and Nica’s heart leapt, but it wasn’t the coil of a serpent about to strike. Had he felt her coming, or seen her as she’d started down the last staircase? As long as he wasn’t poised for a strike. Surely, no one would have left Marie alone with him if he were a danger.
At that, she wondered where Kain was. The big cat surely wouldn’t have left any nest mate’s safety to chance, and the smug cat couldn’t have known she would return in time to chase off Maleo. Kain, more than anyone, should have recognized the budding potential for disaster brewing here. So where was he now? And why had he left the new dancer alone with a spitfire like Marie in the first place? She would expect such an oversight from Dev, but Kain was much better at managing the dancers than this.
Nica sighed. With so much going on, she would need to talk to Kain sooner rather than later. Though it was inevitable, the thought made her tired already. She supposed she should be grateful for something else that hadn’t changed. But first—one problem at a time.
She slowed as she hit the last of the stairs, her steps purposeful, but lyrical. She wanted her approach to be both reassuring and reassured. Nica left her doubts and questions behind, focusing on the dancers ahead of her. It was soothing in its own way, familiar. Once she stepped onto the main floor, her presence alerted Marie, who halted midstep.
Marie was gone, but the fire still raged. The ki’n she’d raised hammered at him, filling his blood with a wild pulse he’d not felt since–
Flash– He was running through the fields beyond the village, playing hide and seek with an annoyed care taker. His feet pounded on the ground and his blood raced through his veins–
Flash– He was running through the forests beyond the village, chasing the prey that would be his contribution to tonight’s feast. The drums beat in his thoughts and his spear flew through the leaves–
Flash– He was running through the streets of the village, dodging an angry older brother. His heart thudded in his chest and her kiss thrilled through his mind–
Flash– He was running from the ruins of the village, fleeing the men of Fire. Fear pulsed in his blood and pain sped through his body—
Everything went cold, leaving Naj trembling and dazed. The scent of smoke and visions of fire blinded him, and all he could see were blacks, reds and golds. He blinked and shook himself, but still he saw blacks and reds and golds—hawk’s kin.