In the hands of Fate.
Seth was kicking himself for leaving Naj alone. He hadn’t realized how impatient he’d allowed himself to become—regardless of the circumstance, there was no excuse. He was damned lucky the fool bird hadn’t attacked them, but they’d dodged the pan only to be tossed into the cook fire it seemed. First, a magical flare up bad enough to bring on a vision, and then a raptor? It couldn’t be a coincidence. Seth stood at high alert, but kept himself carefully concealed. After their last nest… No, no need to borrow trouble. But no need to be careless, either.
With a gentle nudge, Seth pushed Naj into a light sleep, taking over control of their shared form. Naj had been through enough for one morning, and Seth wouldn’t leave such a delicate moment in his already overtaxed hands. No, it was time for his own particular skill set. He knew raptors oh so well.
Seth held himself serpent still, willing the ghosts of the past to lie silent, his heartbeat to slow. Avians, too, knew the feel of emotions upon the skin, though they did their best to hide from one another, so the gift had become muted over the years. A fact that Seth was now very grateful for. He pulled his panic/terror close to his heart, trying to project a calm confidence he didn’t yet believe as he eyed the hawk approaching them.
Nica let a smile fully fill her face, and her feathers rose in her hair to become more obvious. She nearly always wore the rusty red feathers of her avian form, the similar length and color of her hair often made them unobtrusive. Anytime she greeted a new dancer though, she made a point to let her other form stand out. Introducing her other form was a sign of good faith, the remains of an older tradition ingrained in her from her cobra family. It was something her nest had picked up, though she doubted many of them knew its origins.
A hand smoothed the scarf at her hip as she walked, a nervous gesture quickly let go again. She wore her preferred garb, a simple black halter tied around the neck and back, with tight black pants that fell open at the knees to flare around the ankle. Around her waist she wore a single rich crimson scarf that Kisma had tied around her before she’d left. It bore an elaborately embroidered symbol of Fate, Ksm, in gold. As her fingers brushed the metallic threads, she certainly hoped Fate would guide her steps true in the coming moments.
Since the music had been stopped anyway, she didn’t halt at the stage edge, but walked up the three steps to greet both Marie and the new dancer.
Her words cut off in a startled laugh at the fox suddenly there, arms wrapped tight around her waist. Marie’s brush of a tail swayed with excitement behind her, pulling her entire body with it. Nica felt her smile bloom at the eager touch, even as her heart panged at the thought of how she’d missed it. Her fingers grazed the unruly red curls as she leaned down to press a kiss to the top of Marie’s head. The gesture was one she’d done a million times since the fox was just a kit and it soothed both of them. Nica felt a tightness begin to loosen between her shoulders that she’d been ignoring for two years.
She was home.
Nica chuckled softly when Marie squeezed harder, amber eyes shining as she gazed up at her. She chewed at her lip, a gesture Nica knew meant she was holding back a yip. Marie was like that sometimes, fox running so very close to the surface. Nica ruffled her fingers through those red curls again, buoyed up by the reminders of all the years they’d shared.
“I’ve missed you too, kit.”
A little hiccuping yip did escape then, and Marie buried her face in Nica’s side, jaw nuzzling along her ribs. Another trick, to keep her face from going muzzle, but also just pure Marie affection. No one loved with the purity that she did.
As Nica held Marie, she allowed herself to steal a glance at the serpent. His aura was vibrating against hers, but not in a manner she was accustomed to. This wasn’t excitement or nerves, it was almost pain.
Up close, she could see the tightness around his dark eyes. Sweat beaded along his hairline and a faint trembling had taken his limbs. The ki’n had taken its toll on the red cobra and he still struggled with it, even after the dance had ended. Even as she watched, he seemed to search for something within, falling as still as a serpent could.
A faint snippet of an old conversation drifted through her mind and she took the moment to study his eyes as he focused inward. Kisma and she had spoken of serpents and magic at length when Nica had taken on Ariella’s tutelage to learn the serpent dances that relied heavily on weaving magic. Her viper friend had mentioned that magic always left its stain—on vipers, it was often their hair; with cobras, it was their eyes. A red cobra with fire magic should have irises of brilliant scarlet, but his were almost too dark to even decipher their color. Maybe he truly did lack magic.
Seth watched the hawk watching him, though she held to the pretense of greeting the little fox. She made no attempt to hide her emotions, letting the waves of joy and relief radiate from her freely. Seth wondered at that, not sure where the relief was coming from, but there was absolutely no subterfuge about her.
She was gentle, caring, genuine. Warm and open—more like a serpent mother than an avian dance master. Was it a trick of the Three Pillars, an echo of all the memories refusing to stay buried? Seth couldn’t say why, but something in him whispered that he should trust her, despite what his experience told him.
Naj seemed calmed by his brief respite, so Seth decided to go with his instinct. eÿa’Ksmeÿa ksmeÿ. Fate guide us.With that whispered prayer, Seth pushed Naj back to the forefront. He wouldn’t leave him alone again, of course, but they had to start somewhere.
As she processed what she’d seen and let him regroup, she felt his aura withdraw, becoming calmer, smoother. Clearly he was getting his bearings, which was something she had hoped for. Good to know he wasn’t so feral that he couldn’t settle himself back in his own skin. Though the degree to which he was withdrawing his aura was a touch strange for a serpent. Serpents auras naturally flowed freely around them, while it was typically avians that wore it so close to the skin. Odd.
When his aura grew still again, Nica spoke. “Marie?”
The fox turned her face up again, an expectant grin in place. Nica combed her hair back from her face. “Would you let Kain know I’m here?”
Nica hadn’t thought Marie’s grin could get any wider – she was wrong. Marie began to bounce on her feet, wrinkling her nose in glee. “Sure! I’ll let everyone know, right away!”
As she bounded backstage, Nica called after her, “Let people sleep, Marie! No need to wake everyone…”
She trailed off with a shake of her head. “As if she’d listen even if she heard me.”
Nica turned her head to look at the serpent more directly. She couldn’t tell if his overdone stillness was a reaction to Marie’s dance or a way to hide from her personally. Some serpents still held their avian prejudices tight to their hearts, and she didn’t want this new dancer thinking of her as a threat. So she approached softly, knowing her steps would read more as the cobra’s she’d been raised by than the stoic hawk her feathers would call to mind. “Etren l’ramn.”
Even if he didn’t know the old language of the dancers, the familiar lilt of the phrase should strike a chord with him.