In which Naj makes a friend.
Seth lay Naj down on the cool, white sand, and immediately, the smaller man turned over in his sleep, reaching out. Seth shook his head, but moved close enough for Naj’s fingers to brush. Seth leaned back against the large rock behind him, eyes trailing upward, searching for guidance from the cold stars. Save for the heavy orb of the nearly full moon, the sky was as empty as the stark landscape around them. A whispered prayer drifted through the back of his mind, a plea to a goddess long forgotten… He and Naj could certainly use her balance, but Seth doubted Dareiya would hear him, after so many years of silence on his part. Seth scrubbed at his eyes, trying to chase away a weariness that had nothing to do with sleepless nights.
This was not good.
There was so much more magic in this nest than they had been anticipating. Naj was, quite frankly, falling apart. Maybe it was too late. Maybe they’d let him sleep too long, too long to be brought back…
There was, he supposed, only one way to find out.
Seth looked at the sleeping man beside him, form flickering from small to smaller, man to boy. Seth took it as a good sign that Naj had only regressed to his younger self, rather than retreating completely into cobra form but then, he’d not allowed things to progress that far. Maybe… Maybe just a little more help, a little more cushioning…
Seth stood, resolved. He danced a few simple steps, fire within warming the sand beneath. A final stamp of his foot, and a small fire erupted, globes of flame sitting in the cups of his footprints. He nudged them together into one campfire and pushed the little blaze across the sand, towards the sleeping child. Bathed in the fire’s warmer light, Naj didn’t seem quite so pale, quite so small. Seth knelt down, brushing a stray curl from Naj’s face. He watched the years flicker and play across Naj’s features, or perhaps that was just a trick of the light. Seth’s gaze lifted to the barren landscape beyond, washed silvery in the growing light of the rising moon. Abruptly, Seth shifted, glittering red scales winking in the firelight. He cut a crimson gash across the sand as he went, the only color in a moon-washed world.
The cobra didn’t care to emerge from his dark hiding space, indeed, if Seth had left it alone, it would have promptly gone to sleep. There was no immediate danger, his hiding space seemed sound, and he was not hungry, so why leave? But Seth urged it to taste the air, to move closer to the source of heat and heartbeat in the room with them.
Seth would have to be careful- everyone knew most feral shifters were little better than their animal counterparts. Unusually intelligent and curious, but still just a bundle of survival instincts, and in his case, venom. Seth didn’t know how Kain would react to what might be little better than a very frightened animal for all the other man knew. So when he emerged, he did so slowly and carefully, tongue flickering as he periscoped, taking in the scene. All of his senses were completely fixed on Kain, but he did his best to appear curious rather than alarmed or hostile.
Kain let his eyes scan the paragraph again, but took as little from it as he had the last ten times he’d done so. It’d been at least five minutes and he was still on the first page. He wasn’t really reading… Well, he was, but it wasn’t the paperback in his hands.
Shifters were notoriously difficult to read while they were in animal form. And by difficult, he meant nigh impossible. The animal instincts often masked whatever human thoughts or emotions might be within– especially in feral shifters, when the animal could be all that was left. All he was feeling from the serpent now was a jumbled mess of confusion and peace.
Then again, he was trying to refrain from completely diving in. But feeling the outside of a bag was hardly as useful as actually peeking in.
As he debated for the hundredth time whether he should simply risk the intrusion, a movement caught his eye.
A sleek red head appeared from between the jeweled cushions, deliberately poked its way over the exposed cushion and rose to meet him.
Kain tilted his head, considering the cobra. It was a handsome form, certainly eye catching. He could see why Dev was eager to make this new dancer a permanent fixture in the club. But the attitude and aura seemed off… No sparks, no agitation, wariness yes, but hardly alarmed… He resisted the urge to rub his temple of the effort even that bit of reading took.
How best to react? Nonchalance seemed the best resort, given the blatant curiosity of the serpent. And if it was prone to violent reaction, then all the better to minimize provocation.
“Well, hello there.”
Seth reeled as centuries of conditioning took over. He had been prepared to fight the serpent’s base instincts, but not the ones that had been trained into it. The cobra had immediately assessed this calm and commanding man to be Master, and had wanted to coil straightway to his neck or wrist, as was his place. A fine rage locked their muscles in place as Seth attempted to process this.
Was their serpent really that simple? That a large and powerful presence was all it took to win its allegiance? Surely not. The way he’d felt Aezir’s call, from the very first moments…
No, there had to be more to it than that.
But that conclusion did little to ease Seth’s misgivings. What power could their cobra be recognizing? Surely, not another Dai- if they wanted to leave Naj in the protection of the Ahn’ki, why not leave him with his Master? No, not Dai, but… Something of equal power, at least.
Seth wanted to know more, but doubted his ability to go head to head with anyone the serpent so readily bowed to. Perhaps… It wasn’t the best plan, but it would tell him a good deal rather quickly…
Seth relaxed his control on his aura, letting bolts of their fiery magic leak out. The tongues of flame that would lash across the other man’s aura would be hardly more than an inconvenience, but how he reacted to them would speak volumes.
Kain had considered a few possible outcomes with the cobra’s reappearance – most of them revolving around returning to his reading as the serpent explored.
Fire had not been among his more serious thoughts.
There had been no warning, no irritation in his aura, let alone any sign of magic… There was just a sudden crackle of flame over Kain’s arm where it had been resting on his lap.
Fortunately, his own aura kept him from being seriously injured by the heat, but it was annoying to realize the fabric of his pants had not been similarly spared. It was just a dark streak across the fabric, but it did ruin the satiny feel in that spot. He hid his slight agitation by checking the cover of his paperback, glad to see that it was unmarked. Clearly he needed to invest in fire warding his clothing again.
He raised his eyebrows, then gave the serpent a patient look. “Fortunately, most of our surroundings are flame proof, thanks to Marie’s own fiery personality. No wonder the pair of you got on so well.”
a’ztkm! Damn it all!
He hadn’t meant to call any actual fire. The unexpected visions he had been willing to let go – even the most skilled ahve’reta knew that ls’ERA’ramn were unpredictable at best- but he’d never thought his fire magic would abandon him. It was as unthinkable as losing his rhythm mid-drumbeat. And yet the evidence of his novice mistake still decorated their eijye’s pants. Unbelievable.
But Kain himself had remained unharmed.
The room was fire-warded– were the dancers as well? Or was it something more? Seth himself was naturally immune to flames, so this really told him nothing, save that Kain was hard to ruffle.
So what, then? Try another type of magic?
No. The fire magic might be expected, with his red serpent nature, but anything else he did would be tipping his hand. And, despite the nest being run by a raptor, he had no way of knowing how griffic magic would be taken.
Well, if magic was out, he could always see how the second in command handled a nestmate in distress on his own. As long as he stayed close, kept an eye on Naj…
He would have to find out sooner or later, if he wanted Naj to make this place his home. And here, in the peaceful isolation of the il’soum, one on one… It was about as close to ideal as he was going to get. Seth simply hoped Naj would react better than their traitorous serpent had.
Seth nudged Naj to wakefulness, blending the illusion of sleeping on the sands of their mindscape with the reality of fainting onto the couch. Naj curled into a ball much like he had on the sand, and Seth retreated, taking the serpent form and mind with him.
Naj blinked awake, head full of fog. All he knew was that he had been warm, and now he wasn’t. Wait… he had been too warm. Had he fainted?
He didn’t know where he was, he didn’t know who he was with, but he felt safe in the current company. He reminded Naj of the warm rock in the white desert. Wait, desert? No, this was a city …right? He frowned, memory of sleeping in the sand clear, but not fitting with what he thought to be true. …Not knowing where he was… this was bad, yes? He turned questioning eyes to his companion, but didn’t even know where to begin.
Kain was surprised yet again when the serpent shifted into a groggy dancer.
Though, it wasn’t the shift physically that caught him off guard half so much as the mental dance that preceded it. He couldn’t see the details without staring too directly and tipping his hand, but there was definitely something going on beneath the surface. Something much stranger than simply a feral shifter trying to regain himself.
A cloud of confusion rose around him and Kain sighed inwardly. That made two of them. He marked his place and laid his book aside. “How are you feeling?”
“I am … well?”
Naj just wasn’t sure, of anything. He sat up, cradling a cushion to his chest and curling into the arm of the couch. He felt small and adrift, but unharmed.
Kain debated how much to say. If the serpent didn’t remember it… But how much didn’t he remember? The better question was why he didn’t remember, but small steps would begin a longer journey.
“What do you remember?”
Seth could throttle him. This man was nearly as unflappable as Aezir- and just as unreadable.. No reaction to the magic, nothing to be gleaned from his answers to Naj–already, Seth could feel his temper simmering. Which was ridiculous—he had been trained better than this. And ultimately, this was about Naj. Cobra temper be damned.
He decided that less was more. He fed Naj a tangle of heat and dancing, meeting their new eija, and a swarm of emotions too rapid to be easily read. Hopefully it would be enough for the both of them. Because Seth had no doubt their eijye was reading every flicker in their aura, every thought that flew across their face. Let him—a good leader should, and maybe, just maybe, Seth would finally learn something from Kain’s reaction.
Naj was hardly surprised that he couldn’t remember much. Such excitement, in such a short time, after so long in the dark– it would be enough to overwhelm anyone. Still, he did his best.
“I was dancing… and then Nica came, and … I grew too warm?” His gaze had been in the middle distance, but then he dropped his eyes to his lap. “I’m sorry, I can’t recall anymore.”
Something was definitely off. The waves shifting through the new dancer’s aura sent an answering ripple of unease through Kain’s mind, though he kept it hidden beneath a calm projection.
There was something familiar about the changes he was sensing, but he couldn’t place where he might recognize it from. It wasn’t unusual for him to have these little moments of familiarity, where something resonated with his long past, but he was finding this one particularly frustrating.
“That’s about right.” Kain laid an arm out on the back of the couch cushions, opening his posture to the other dancer. It also helped to soothe his own mental landscape. “She was worried since you seemed to get dizzy on the stage, but when you shifted here, we thought you might need some time to relax.”
Naj curled further in on himself, both physically and mentally. To have lost control like that… He had thought he was in command of his serpent– it was hard to resist the temptation to hide in his serpent form, but he never thought he would actually fail. If he had harmed one of his nestmates…
Seth hated doing this to Naj, but he couldn’t interfere now. He was becoming aware of a distant pressure, a subtle push coming from without, and Seth didn’t dare make any more sudden mental shifts that might draw attention to himself. Their eijye was definitely watching them, and Seth simply wasn’t ready to make himself known. He’d rather not reveal himself at all, if Naj could handle this on his own, but he was ready to do whatever it took to find them a place to finally rest.
Even if it meant telling the truth.
“It’s quite alright.” Inwardly, Kain sighed. As much as he might be doubtful of whatever hidden machinations were going on, he did hate to see someone suffer needlessly.
He drew his arm down, making it clear to the serpent that he could lean into Kain if he desired to, though not pressing. Serpents often did best with physical touch and reassurance. They just also needed it to not come from a source of high heat.
“Recovering from hiding in one’s other form isn’t uncommon or shameful. It’s just one of the ways your other form protects you. Many here will understand that and they won’t hold such struggles against you. If you let them know how, your nestmates will certainly help when they can.”
Naj moved without a thought into the comfort of the other man’s side. He radiated warmth and security, and it was all Naj could do not to burrow his face into it and hide.
But the time for hiding was over. It was reassuring to know he was not the only one in this Asylum to fight this particular battle, but they could not fight it for him.
He sat up straighter, though kept himself tucked against the other man’s side. He was more than large enough for Naj to fit. It was sorely tempting to let himself stay hidden beneath such an imposing presence, but something within Naj urged him not to give in.
Not Naj too.
First their cobra, now Naj himself- what was with those two? Or, more likely, what was with the man commanding their attention? Seth wanted to do some probing himself, but didn’t dare. The best he could do was keep whispering at Naj, keep moving him forward, and hope that eventually, they’d build some momentum.
“Thank you. I will be certain to ask for help in the future, if there is any assistance anyone can provide me.”
He doubted there was anything anyone could do, but kept that thought to himself.
Kain soothed a hand along the smaller man’s arm, nodding mostly to himself. Physical touch usually made mental reading easier, but whatever had been bubbling under the surface had ceased. It was exasperating, but there was the chance that whatever he’d been feeling had simply been the fluctuation of magic unreined. Unlikely, but possible.
“Nica will certainly remain nearby for the next few days – she prefers to make herself available to new dancers and has quite a bit of experience recovering from being feral herself. But if you find her heat overwhelming again, you’re welcome to seek me out if you prefer. There are places for calm and quiet in the nest if you know where to look– like this room or the rooftop gardens.”
Oh yes. The hawk, and his visions.
He had forgotten, in the fog of coming to, but the reminder of the hawk came with the clear flash of red feathers, and just as surely, he knew the wings were his own. Or rather, had been hers. It was unusual for the gifts of his black cobra ancestors to present themselves, but when they did, he was always a detached viewer of the scene. Perhaps the magic had been affected by the physical connection to the subject? He had no idea which was cause and which was effect, falling bodily into the hawk or his vision?
Naj blinked away the image, not wanting to lose himself again. Perhaps being so engrossed in Nica’s memories of her own feral past had prompted his own shift. If so, perhaps it would be better if he avoided their nest leader, at least when he was feeling overwhelmed.
He nodded along with the suggestion of calm and quiet– until he got his bearings, it would serve him well. Naj had not anticipated dealing with so much magic, but he was not completely defenseless against it. Simply unprepared. Now that he knew was he was up against, he could return to a habit of meditation and grounding to help him face his day.
It was a start. He had hoped to divorce himself from his militant lifestyle, but as with all things imposed upon him by the Dai, this too served its purpose. All things in their time. He would be happy here, the steps were simply more complex than originally thought.
“Thank you. If you would just show me how to access the gardens, I will look after myself. There’s no need to put anyone out on my account.”
“It’s simple enough to find, it’s the only door on the top balcony.” He relaxed into the cushions, leaning his head back and letting his eyes close. Speaking of the sun-warmed gardens reminded him that he could certainly use a nap. He’d hardly slept last night, and while he could pull energy from his magic, it wasn’t always the best idea… Especially if there was already loose magic about.
Yes, a nap sounded better and better. There was little more he could do here and he certainly wouldn’t be missed in the ample hours before the show tonight. “If you have trouble finding it, someone can point it out.” He laughed softly at the thought, knowing already how helpful the nest would be. “I suspect that you’ll have more help than you’ll know what to do with in the coming days.”
The man’s drowsiness was catching, and Naj fought back a yawn. It turned into a chuckle at the mention of overly helpful help.
“So I’ve noticed. Marie was …very enthusiastic, this morning.”
Another laugh resonated low in Kain’s chest. “Indeed. She’s known for such antics, as is Chris. The other dancers are a bit… Quieter than those two, though no less hospitable.”
This was blossoming into an actual conversation. For some reason, Naj found himself anxious. He longed for a simple way to excuse himself and retreat the gardens, but it seemed rude to leave in the middle of introductions-
Only, Naj hadn’t introduced himself. Nor could he recall this dancer’s name. Had he been told, before his black out? Naj had a feeling scenarios like this were going to become quite common. He sighed, then caught himself. Rude again.
“I’m sorry, I only just realized– well, it seems I can’t recall if we’ve actually met. Forgive me if I’ve already said, but I’m called Naj.”
Kain raised an eyebrow at the change of topic, but didn’t bother to open his eyes. “I’m not sure that we have been formally introduced. I’m Kain.”
The complete stillness of the serpent did garner his full attention. He glanced down, frowning slightly.
“Is there a problem?”
“Oh! No, no, I…”
Naj sprang to life, wildly shaking his head and hands, only to fall almost immediately back on himself. He was really quite bad at this. He’d been so much better at schooling his reactions before…
But there was no help for it. Best to simply recover, rather than sit here making things worse.
“I simply didn’t realize who I was speaking with, is all. I didn’t mean to be so informal, eijye. Forgive me.”
He kept himself from climbing down to the floor to kneel- this was clearly not that sort of nest- but pulled back to his side of the couch, and kept his gaze firmly downcast, as was proper.
Kain blinked, then gave into the exhaustion that came with such a title, letting his head fall back again. Of course a Dai operative would cling so much to hierarchy.
“I’d rather you not do that – what I like about this nest is the informality. No need for honorifics or decorum, we are all dancers. If you desire such things though, I’m sure we can accommodate that, but you’ll find no one else really adheres to that sort of infrastructure here.”
He stopped himself, not wanting his disapproval to come across as hostile. He’d mostly kept it out of his voice, but nuances were a cobra’s specialty. Sloppy on his part, really. At this point he deserved that nap.
“Nica enjoys taking on the role of nest leader and she is well suited to the situations that call for one. How I came to be her… eijye, is a mystery to me. I certainly never wanted such a position. I suppose that’s what happens when I’ve been here as long as she has. Seniority does have its disadvantages.” The last was said with a touch of dry humor. It would be best if he could keep the conversation at least somewhat light hearted.
“Again, I apologize.”
The apology was reflexive, and he felt the other man’s aura wince away from it. Kain was radiating as much easy openness as he could. Naj was unsure of himself, but he’d do his best..“Though I suppose that’s exactly the sort of thing you’re asking me not to do, isn’t it?”
He masked his uncertainties with humor, keeping the words from sounding too much like yet another apology. His grin was weak, and a little lopsided, but it was there. He was trying.
The amused tone was an abrupt change from the previous submissiveness and Kain cracked one eye to glance down. “I think I can stand the occasional apology, so long as they don’t linger.”
A smile pulled at the corner of his mouth as his eye closed again.
He hissed a breath at the immediate lapse, but turned it into a soft sigh.. “I’ll do my best to break myself of the habit.” Feeling bolstered by Kain’s own good humor, Naj ventured a small joke. “I’d hate to poison the little ones with old ideas.”
“They’d take to the corruption quite readily, I imagine.” He kept his tone dry, but his amusement bled through.
“Young dogs are always keen to learn old tricks.”
The good humor in the air settled over Naj like a blanket, and he relaxed back into Kain’s loose embrace. After spending the morning over-explaining to Marie, it was nice to simply speak and be understood.Once he’d started to get over his expectations, Naj was finding he quite liked his new eijye. The sense of humor was certainly unexpected, but it was comfortable, as was the stability of his aura and the warmth he radiated. Not quite so intense as Nica or Marie, more like a sun warmed stone. And his general attitude simply put Naj at ease. He had a feeling they were going to become fast friends.