In which Naj discovers many wondrous things.
Naj stopped in his tracks, openly staring as Nat and Marie danced. The contrast of night and day between them was even stronger than it had been the evening before. Clearly, the pair had great chemistry and knew how to build and play off of one another. Marie’s style was just as aggressive as ever, but it was soothed by Nat’s more subtle, more sultry compliment. Each of them was powerfully seductive in their own way, and Naj couldn’t help but stare.
Nica was brought to a halt when Naj stopped abruptly. She followed his gaze to the stage and she took a moment to appreciate the beauty she found there. It was clearly a dance of Nat’s design, and Nica felt a small swell of wistfulness that she didn’t recognize it. The steady movement of the taller woman was punctuated by Marie’s bursts of motion and color. The pair of them were undeniably beautiful together.
It was nearly impossible to look away. Spectral trails followed every sweep and bend and curve, filling the stage with ghostly images. He was no longer able to pick out any singular move, let alone style. He’d nearly lost the dancers in the spell they were weaving.
Ah, lost again. Seth had to admit, they were quite lovely, but if Naj couldn’t separate his normal vision from his serpentine senses, they may as well give up now. Yes, the Three Pillars style stage did much to accentuate the natural energies of the nest, but Naj had to pull it together. Perhaps, after a breath of fresh air, they could try again, but for now, Naj still needed a buffer.
But after his experience with the nest eijye, he was wary of tipping his hand. He’d have to tread carefully, while getting Naj out of here quickly.
He relaxed his careful hold on their aura, sending the barest of questing thoughts in their eija’s direction. Hopefully, with something this minor, she wouldn’t notice. Provided he wasn’t as rusty as the growing pile of evidence would suggest.
Seth reached out for the fox kit’s energy, calling on the ties they’d formed dancing together this morning. Nothing overt, simply reminding her ki’n of the steps performed before. Just enough to distract…
When Marie broke the moment by laughing loudly at her own misstep, Nica laughed with her. Her gaze returned to Naj, who was still staring at the stage intently. Nica took the opportunity to gently pull on Naj’s arm. “We can watch the show tonight as well if you like – it would give you an idea of the variety of dances you can expect in Asylum.”If you’re more interested in watching performances, we could simply sit here through practice if you like.”
Naj blinked and stammered as he finally managed to look away. “I’m sorry, what were we saying?”
Nica was a little concerned when he couldn’t finish a sentence, the dance had been beautiful, but surely not that distracting?
“I was saying if you’d rather sit and watch the practice performances, we could?”
Damn. That wouldn’t do at all. So far, concern for her newest dancer was distracting their eija, but if they sat and made a study of the pair before them, surely the raptor would notice Seth’s hand in the convenient dance break. No, he needed them to get upstairs, and quickly.
It was cheap to use the same trick twice, but Seth was confident Nica wouldn’t connect the stumbling fox with the stumbling serpent. He let their knees go weak, just enough that Naj staggered for balance, catching Nica’s arm. A little heavy handed, but he pushed the sensation of light-headedness through the connection their auras made on contact.
Naj managed a smile, but it was weak and watery. Clearly, all the magic outbursts were taking their toll. As much as he’d love to sit and drink in the ki’n of his new nest, he needed a moment to regain himself. The stillness of a garden would do just the thing, he hoped.
“I think it might be wiser if we continued upstairs. The fresh air would do me some good.”
Nica nodded at Naj’s explanation. It was sensible, for a serpent to find himself ungrounded if he was recovering from being feral. The serpent would shy away from so much motion and sound, she could see how the nest in its daily action would be distracting and overwhelming.
She steadied him with an arm against his back, guiding them towards the stairs again. “Then the gardens it is.”
“ parn’ei. Again.” He offered a small laugh, hooking his arm over her shoulders. As they moved forward, a stiffness melted away from his posture, as he became more certain that he wasn’t crossing some unspoken line. This level of familiarity with his eija would take some getting used to, but that suited him just fine.
She led him up both flights of stairs, until they were on the third balcony. “The door to the rooftop isn’t quite hidden, but it is out of the way so that customers don’t try to use it.”
She opened the door adding, “There’s also a ward on this door in case the Employees only sign isn’t deterrent enough.”
With a hand on his back, she urged him up the stairs first. When they reached the second door, she reached past him to open it as well.
The ripple of magic was becoming familiar, though Seth was still careful to keep himself tucked away. Naj was handling himself fairly well, and Seth was confident that the rooftop would be relatively uneventful.
Naj was speechless.
A near forest stretched out before them, the midmorning sunlight dazzling off the water- water? Up here? But he could hear it. Distinct from the sound of the river behind them, the ripple of a fountain sounded from across the roof. A breeze ruffled the trees- full sized trees!-bringing with it the scent of fresh fruits and herbs. And it was warm! Frost still lingered in the shadows of the warehouses below them, but the air surrounding them was fragrant and light as a gentle summer day. It was as if the very stones around them radiated warmth, enfolding them in a welcoming embrace.
Naj took one step, then another, hardly believing this space was real. If he moved too quickly, he was certain the dream around them would shatter.
Nica took a deep breath, losing herself a bit in the greenery around them. She hadn’t been able to immerse herself in it when she’d first arrived, but the absence of the demon and having received a welcome from her nest allowed her to fully enjoy it now.
She moved towards the blackberries, able to smell the ripeness on the air. She picked a choice handful, slipping one onto her tongue and savoring the burst of tart sweetness.
As she moved back to Naj, she touched a few plants, automatically checking the vegetables for pieces that needed to be picked. She knew Kain wouldn’t let anything get overripe, but it was an old habit she was happy to pick back up.
She held a few blackberries out to Naj with a smile. “This is my favorite place to relax, Kain’s really outdone himself up here.”
As he moved from one oasis to another, he couldn’t believe the vast array of plant life around them. One island held sweet corn, stalks just taller than his head. Another full of lilies, heady fragrance almost overwhelming. Tomatoes and peppers, roses and rhododendron, and the tress! They were ancient and stately- decades old if they were a day- and Naj had the boyish urge to climb one, to shift and crawl out into the furthest branches, feeling as if the wind might carry him away. But he was reluctant to touch any of it, for fear of bringing the magic of the garden tumbling down.
He hadn’t realized he’d lost Nica until she came back into his vision, blackberries in hand. Suddenly, he recalled his morning’s berries, and knew they must have come from here. This wonderland was a functioning garden, not some gossamer dream, but even as Naj took the plump berry delicately from Nica’s hand, he could hardly believe such a place could exist- and on a rooftop no less!
Once she’d said it, Kain’s energy was clear. The stones radiated the same warmth that the large man did, the same comfort, the same strength. The berry burst on his tongue with the same vibrant life from this morning, and now Naj understood why Kain was encouraged to do most of the cooking.
If the stage was an extension of Nica’s passion and dreams, then the garden was Kain’s. Surrounded by such power and love, Naj felt his anxieties melt away. He reached for Nica’s hand, to share the moment with her, to bring her into his joy.
He didn’t have to say anything for his happiness to move through her. She squeezed his hand with a smile, glad she could share it with him.
“One of Kain’s goals when we took over this warehouse was to have a good gardening area, he’s always preferred to cook with fresh ingredients…” She gestured to the obvious islands of vegetables and the counterpart flower beds. “Not to mention he grows most of the herbs he uses in his soaps.”
Naj’s smile blossomed as Nica continued to tell him about Kain. He had found the man immediately easy to get along with, and the more he learned, the more he wanted to know.
“He seems to be a man of many talents.”
“That he is.” She almost added that he also had a talent for being obnoxious, but she figured Naj could learn that for himself. Unless Kain saved that specialty for just her and Dev.
“Actually, the entire nest seemed to be full of surprise talents. From what I’ve seen of Marie’s sketches, Emily’s pottery- least of all the hawk who danced like a serpent. Naj wondered if his own hidden talents would ever be needed, though he certainly hoped not. Still, the thought was enough to put a damper on the joy he had felt a moment before. He gave a heavy sigh, eyes falling to the middle distance.
Nica nodded, wondering at the dip in his mood, but letting him settle it on his own. “That’s true. Some of those are things that they came to the nest with, some are talents that they discovered while staying here. I try to encourage it if someone finds something that makes them happy… The local college has actually been great for that. Emily uses their clay studio quite often for her art.”
She gestured towards the area of the college. From the roof, the sprawling campus was easy to see if you knew what you were looking at. “When you’re settled, if there’s something you’re interested in learning about, you might look into what classes they offer.”
Naj followed her arm, and suddenly, he felt as if he were flying. He could see the people down below, moving busily from building to building, chatting or reading, lives full of promise. And all of their dreams and ambition held him aloft, and he felt as if he could soar forever. He longed for wings of his own, to carry him on the winds wherever Fate saw fit.
“D’anhk-khna…” He breathed the name of heaven and earth, the whispered prayer better suited to expressing his awe than anything else could.
She raised an eyebrow when it seemed he didn’t hear her at all. To be fair, it was a lot to take in at once. She let it go, knowing that there would be time again later if he was actually interested in expanding his interests. Some did, others were content to simply dance.
However, his use of pri’mn… That made her chuckle. When he glanced at her, she smiled. “My mother named me for the priestess Danica – she felt it appropriate that I share a name with the hawk from the Love that Broke the War. I rarely hear the full deity’s name invoked though.”
His brows furrowed at her words, not making the immediate connection. He knew it was a serpent tradition to name children for important figures, but he wasn’t familiar with the tale she told.
“Nica… Danica- Oh! Dankkna, I see.. The name has evolved over time, hasn’t it? Shortened, from the original?”
She laughed, mentally tucking his odd question away for later contemplation, right now she was enjoying their easy conversation. “It is, though in my case, the full name is Danica. I’ve simply gone by Nica since I was very young.”
Her laughter inspired him to as well. “I would have never made the connection from Nica to the spirits of earth and sky.” He gave her a warm smile, letting his happiness fill his face and his skin.
“I think it suits you.”
“That was the idea, I believe.” She looked to the sky with a small smile. “My mother especially loved the story of The Love that Broke the War… I think adopting a hawk simply gave her the excuse to draw names from it.”
There it was again. He stepped further into the garden, drawing Nica to a large rock. “I’m not familiar with the story you keep referencing. Is it a take on a classic rhei, or something more modern?”
She gave him a surprised look. “You’re not familiar with The Love that Broke the War?”
Nica tucked herself onto the rock as she let that sink in. “It’s an older story, set at the end of The Thousand Year war between the serpents and the raptors….“
Naj remained silent throughout her tale. Not only out of respect for her telling, but out of a growing sense of familiarity, one that chilled him.
When she had finished, and was clearly awaiting some response, Naj couldn’t bring himself to meet her eyes. Finally, he spoke, voice barely above a whisper.
“I never would have imagined…”
Her hand sought his, the serpent need to give and receive comfort clear in her upbringing. He welcomed it, returning the gentle pressure and drawing strength to continue.
“The War…” No, that wasn’t the place to start. “No one can say how much truth is to be found in the old stories. Whether Li’Daea literally danced around the fire with our first kin, or ei’Ceres was more of a person or an idea- they all certainly came from somewhere.”
He drew a deep breath, trying to center himself before continuing. The memories that had surfaced at Nica’s arrival had been long, long buried, but now they seemed to be facing him at every turn.
“When I was a boy, relationships between the serpents and the avians were… tense. Honestly, the serpent kingdom had difficult relationships with most of their neighbors. But… to hear things progressed so poorly…”
His body shook, voice thick with emotions he couldn’t quite face. But with Nica’s arm around him, and the sun was rising higher in the sky, it was easier to turn his mind to brighter things. He patted her hand, giving her as bright a smile as he could.
“I’m glad to hear that peace was finally found.”
As he spoke of his childhood, she found it hard to focus on the pieces that were this new dancer. Instead she was only overwhelmed by the need to offer him comfort, to take away the trembling that passed from his hand to hers.
She kissed his cheek, leaning forward to give him a hug. “Indeed… It’s one of my favorite stories. I can’t count the number of times my family performed it growing up.”
Naj brightened. “It’s a rei’ramn? I’d love to learn it.”
“It is, I can teach it to you sometime if you like.” She would be pleased to share the songs and dances of her favorite story with him. It also reassured her that he didn’t think it would continue to bring such sad thoughts to his mind.
“Yes, please. I would like that very much.” He gave her hand a final squeeze before pushing off the rock, stretching high to the sky. “I’m quite looking forward to resuming a regular dancing routine. It’s been far too long.”
She joined him in the stretch, then extended a hand back towards the door. “Shall we go back downstairs? It should be about time to get the club ready for opening. I can walk you through what we usually do before the show.”
“By all means.”
He was proud of himself for not overblowing how much of her time he’d “wasted”. The moment they’d shared had been anything but a waste. He was learning how he fit in this nest, making connections that would tie him to this world.
But he wasn’t about to take her time for granted. He reached out and brushed her arm, giving her a warm smile.
“Thank you for sharing this time with me. I’m feeling much more grounded now.”
She returned his touch and smile, glad to see that his aura matched his words. “Good. I’ve enjoyed sharing the garden with you.”
Nica let her gaze slip past him to follow the height of an apple tree. “I’m glad it could bring you as much joy and peace as it gives me.”