In which Naj makes more new friends.
Kain didn’t bother opening his eyes at the sound of the door opening. He knew it was Nica when she paused in the doorway, no doubt assessing the improvement of the situation she’d left behind. A mixed swirl of emotion appeared and vanished before Kain could identify all of it, though relief was evident. Let her keep her complexities, he had a feeling she’d be full of them for a while given her extended absence from Asylum.
When he finally did open his eyes, he met her raised eyebrow with a smile. “I haven’t taught him any bad habits, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
Naj snickered, then quickly stifled it. Kain might shirk the honors of being eijye, but he hadn’t had a chance to test out his eija. Still, it had been a good joke, and Naj let his amusement color his aura before tucking it away into something more serious. He remained seated, when Kain made no effort to stand, but kept his words polite.
“I’m sorry if I worried you, eija. I am feeling much better now, thank you.”
Nica made a face at Kain’s teasing, tossing a thought at him in regards to his earlier concern. Of course, he deflected it readily and then the new dancer was speaking.
“I’m glad you’re feeling better.”
He didn’t know what to do with their gentle easiness. Things were clearly relaxed in this nest, but that left Naj at a loss as to how to proceed. If he were legitimately injured or unwell, even the Dai would insist he take time off to recover- what good was a broken tool– but Naj didn’t think he was unwell, exactly, just… off balance.
But, perhaps it would be best to take a day to get his bearings. He would learn more efficiently if he could focus, and so in the interest of not wasting anyone’s time, Naj finally came to a decision.
“I am no longer faint, but I do not believe I will be fit for duty at any point today. My status is too unpredictable, I feel. I apologize.”
Nica raised her eyebrows at his statement, wondering if Kain had said something to spark the apology. When she glanced over to Kain though, he merely shrugged one shoulder. She turned her attention back to the serpent, a little troubled that his first thought had been to his duty. Duty was not a word lightly used, especially by a serpent.
“No one thought you would work tonight – I never expect a dancer to dance until they’re comfortable in the nest. If that takes a week or a month or more, that’s fine. It shouldn’t be a duty to dance, but something you want to do, something you enjoy.”
Naj dipped his head low, unable to resist the years of habit the words carried with them.
“a’parn’ei,eija. Thank you for your understanding.”
He faltered, feeling a wave of …not quite disapproval, but restraint? Was Kain trying to coach him? Naj raised his face, giving Kain a mix of apology and gratitude in his small smile.
“Kain tells me such formality has fallen out of practice. I appreciate your patience as I learn to dance to a more modern tune.”
He rose in a long, elegant line, giving Nica a proper dancer’s bow of beauty and art, not the timid cowering of before. His smile blossomed as the movement filled his soul, light shining in his eyes.
“I do look forward to gracing your stage, when I am ready. I hope I can add to the joy and the fire that fills your home. Thank you for your warm welcome.”
Nica smiled as he bowed, more than a bit relieved to see his aura taking a more natural serpent flow and warmth. She had to wonder at his words and actions though – just how old was he? It wasn’t a question politely asked among the longer lived races, especially since magic could extend natural lifetimes. The last war that had been waged against magic users was over by more than a century, but that was barely a moment passing to those who had survived it. Such events left marks in mannerisms and stigmas that were often the only subtle signs of a shifter’s age. Nica could easily recognize those born around her own century, and easier still identify those far younger, but once a person’s age was over a century, she had no head for the nuances. For instance, she knew from his hints that Kain held far more than just one or two centuries under his belt, but just how many was a mystery to her. Of course, that meant that he was invaluable when it came to learning such delicate details about her dancers.
“We’re glad to have you here, though Kain’s correct,” she glanced over at the big cat as she spoke, “we’re much less formal here. I want you to be able to relax, to consider this your home too.”
Marie’s voice chimed in from just behind Nica. “Yes! You should feel at home with us!”
Nica glanced back to find Marie being gently restrained by Nat, while Lena carefully peeked around the pair of them.
“Naj, you know Nat and Marie, this is Lena.”
Lena stepped out slightly from Nat and Marie, but stayed back a bit. She waved, one foot tucked behind the other as the tail from her snow leopard form swayed behind her. Her smile was uncertain, but happy. “Hey.”
Naj flinched at the sudden intrusion, despite Marie’s welcoming declaration. He was glad to see they were mostly familiar faces, though the new comer was definitely eye catching. Even with her shy demeanor, the boldness of her neon pink shirt – dress?– made her the loudest of the three. The bright color set off her starkly colored fur nicely, and warmed her creamy skin. Despite her obvious attempts to remain in the background, in neon pink she hard to look away from. Naj did his best not to stare, or bow, or anything else that might be considered off putting, in light of his recent advice. But even if good manners didn’t dictate it, he found himself needing to acknowledge her, to reach out in some way. She was too beautiful not to, and her shyness just made her that much more appealing to his own quiet nature. He settled for extending his hand, with a ripple of scales by way of the now familiar introduction.
“A pleasure to meet you, Lena. My name is Naj.”
Lena slipped forward to take the offered hand, smile growing as she did so. “It’s nice to meet you too, Naj.”
To his relief, as they touched, nothing more passed between them than warmth and friendship. He was grateful, too, that Natalia was keeping Marie at bay. He just wasn’t certain how much of the fiery little fox he could handle right now.
He stepped back into the room, giving the new dancers access to the space he had previously been blocking.
Lena immediately tucked herself back when he moved away, more out of habit than any current nervousness. While she loved to be with everyone, sometimes being the center of attention still made her uncomfortable.
Kain stood in a smooth movement, drawing all eyes to him. He nodded to Nica with a wide smile. “I’m going to catch a nap before it’s time to set up.”
Before Nica could protest, Nat caught the cue readily, pulling Marie with her towards the door. “And we have a dance that needs rehearsing.” Marie wrinkled her nose, but allowed herself to be pulled backward. She called to Naj, “I’ll see you later!” with a big wave.
Lena began to slip towards the door after giving Nica a kiss on the cheek. She waved to Naj, adding, “I should make sure my costumes are ready for tonight, but I’m sure I’ll see you later too.”
Nica shook her head as the room emptied as quickly as it had filled. She especially liked how Kain had smoothly made his exit before she could get a word alone with him. He had to know she wanted to speak with him and was avoiding her.
She glanced over at Naj, “Are you still alright?”
Well. That was certainly abrupt. But it seemed to be the norm, given all the comings and goings of this morning. Honestly, he was grateful the room had cleared out as quickly as it had. He was doing well so far, but he wouldn’t relax until a day or two had passed without magical incident.
But that was for him to worry about. Clearly, the nest was diving into what would be a busy day, and there was no need for him to keep their nest leader from them.
“tz, eija. I am fine.. I don’t believe there’s any reason for me to keep you any longer.”
Nica nodded, glad that the brief introductions hadn’t overwhelmed the new dancer. “Actually, there isn’t anything pressing, unless that’s your polite way of asking to be left alone.” She gave him a smile that she hoped let him know she was only teasing.
“Oh no! No, no, no- not at all.”
He reached out, but hesitated, knowing he shouldn’t be as formal, but unsure how far to take it. He didn’t want to seem stiff, or ungrateful, but to think he might have somehow offended…
She moved forward to finish the movement he’d started, wanting to encourage him to be more familiar with his nestmates. His aura was more open and warmer, more like the serpents she was accustomed to. She didn’t think he would immediately fall back into the cool withdrawn state he’d been in earlier, but it was a worry not far from her mind. She settled for touching his shoulder, not wanting to risk overheating him with a hug. “It’s alright, Naj, I was just teasing.”
His hand sought out her own on his shoulder, drawing comfort from offering it. “I am sorry. I simply…” He shrugged, resting his head on her hand. “I feel like I’m being more trouble than I’m worth.” The words were neutral, almost empty. But that was truly how he felt about the matter. It bothered him to be a bother, but he wasn’t particularly distressed about it, personally. He simply didn’t feel he was worth disrupting the nest over. He would find his own way, in time.
At his indication that touch was welcome, she stepped closer, letting her other hand rub his arm gently. His comment had sobered her slightly, the implication of dismissal from his past clear. She kept her energy open and relaxed, not wanting to add to his distress by reacting to it. “You’d be surprised how often I hear similar things from new dancers… And I find that given time, they understand they’re worth it.”
Instinctively, she kissed the top of his head. “I hope you do too.”
“I hope you find me to be worth it, as well.”
He had meant for it to sound more hopeful, but somehow, like everything, it just came out… wrong. But he was determined to move past it, and so he stepped away so that he might offer Nica his arm.
“Come. I did mean what I said about not keeping you away from your nest. Let me learn what steps I can, and when I have had enough, I’ll be certain to let you know.”
It was hard not to smile at his words, though she doubted that he even realized where she was finding the humor.
“You’re not keeping me away from our nest, Naj.” She stressed the “our” gently as she slipped her arm through his. “You’re part of it now, and if you want to learn more about it, I’m more than happy to show you… I assume someone’s given you some sort of look around?”
Her words melted his heart, and he pulled her closer without thinking. Her energy was comfortable, like the energy of the nest she’d created, a natural extension of herself. It spread to envelope him, and in turn, he reached out to include himself in it.
He ducked shyly as she asked about his familiarity. “I’ll admit, it was a bit much to take in. But yes, I was shown around the downstairs last night.”
Her constant vigilance began to relax as it became clear he was doing the same. She chuckled, “Is there anywhere you’d still like to see or any questions I could answer?”
“I’m afraid it’s all still too new, I don’t know where to star- oh!” His uncertainty blossomed into excitement.
“Kain had mentioned a rooftop garden?”
“Oh, yes.” Nica grinned, her feathers fluffing and resettling as she caught his excitement. “The gardens are one of my favorite places.”
She began to move forward now that a destination was in mind. The door that opened to the front of house would be the quickest path to the balconies, rather than taking the door that opened to the backstage area. “It would be my pleasure to show you the rooftop.”
“a’parn’ei, thank you very much!” He followed her eagerly out onto the floor, only to come to a complete stop again when he saw Marie and Nat dancing.