Chapter 7, part 3

In which Gwen dances.

Nica returned to her seat, and the rehearsal continued. Naj was buzzing with questions and comments, but even if he had been willing to speak through another dancer’s performance, he wouldn’t dare interrupt the tigress on stage. As with every tiger he’d ever met, she owned every inch of the space around her, and all that she laid eyes on. It was only through her graciousness that she allowed the others to watch her.

He shivered, pushing the pervading aura off of his so he could breathe a little easier.

He was certainly out of his old habits, if he let the feline’s natural energies overcome him so. She wouldn’t be projecting, here in the comfort of her own nest, Naj was simply that susceptible. Ah well. While it meant more work in the long run, it also meant he could enjoy the performance in a way a more disciplined dancer would not. Upsides to everything.

Gwen’s dance began with a haunting piano piece that drew her across the stage almost as if against her will. Her classical ballet training shone as she put her internal struggle into movements that were as eerily beautiful as the audible landscape. When the second piano joined in, her movements jumped from one piece to another, showcasing a dancer torn. Her leaps and bows sent her from one end of the stage to the other with speed that balanced the fine edge of inhumanly possible.

It was captivating. Nica found herself leaning forward, breath caught in her throat as she followed the elegant lines of every movement. When the piece came to a slow, reluctant halt and Gwen bowed low for a final time, Nica felt the physical release as well. She leaned back in her seat, pulling a long, deep breath.

The tigress’ prowess on stage always seemed to catch Nica off guard. It wasn’t that she doubted Gwen’s ability, but the command and beauty in her form was awe-inspiring. Tigers were renowned for their physicality, which almost always translated into the arena of fighting. To see her transform that power into music was beyond words. And after two years in a nearly all-serpent nest, the sheer force of it was breathtaking.

As Gwen paced offstage in her simple black leotard, Nica wondered what costume she would choose to accompany the piece. She supposed she would simply have to see it tonight.

The loud clattering of his chair falling away startled Naj more than his actual fall. Then the jarr of impact coursed through him, and the spell was finally broken. Not a proper spell, to be sure, but Naj had been thoroughly entranced by the tigress dancing nonetheless.

It had been foolish to let his guard down so completely, but the temptation to be truly lost in the mn, the ki’n

Seth shouldn’t have indulged him. How many missteps had he made today? He had lost count at this point. It was time to call it a day, to rest and reflect on whether it should be counted as a success or failure. He really couldn’t tell. On the one hand, there had only been the one major shifting incident, but on the other– no. He shouldn’t be so hard on Naj. He was doing very well, all things considered. And all things in their time.

But really– to lose himself in the tiger’s dance like that… Not that she wasn’t stunning, but still.

Are you alright?” Nica held a hand out to help him up, even as she glanced back at the stage. A nod to her and the other dancers kept with what they had been doing. Seth stared at it blankly, mind racing through their aura and mindscape, judging the excitement in hers, wondering at that first flash of memory episodes– No, he was being foolish. Naj would never learn to depend on his nestmates if Seth kept interfering. He left Naj to take Nica’s offered hand, staying carefully poised to jump back in at the first sign of magical flare up, but otherwise keeping his hands off.

Naj took her hand, only realizing after the fact that it was without any hesitation. The smile that brought to his face was utterly inappropriate for the moment, but Naj didn’t care. He was relaxing, and that was a thing to be celebrated. Even as he was being helped from the floor because of his mistakes.

It was getting easier not to kick himself for every little misstep, becoming more natural to simply touch and be touched. He leaned into Nica’s side without questioning why, or wondering what she’d make of it– he was simply living in his nest.

Of course, it wouldn’t do to ignore her concern for him, no matter how happy he was in the moment. He shook his head, smile still firmly locked in place, then laid his head on her shoulder so he might be close enough to whisper.

I’m fine. It’s simply been a long time since I’ve watched a tiger dance.”

He knew she would understand, having such a dancer in her own nest.

Nica nodded, humming her agreement softly. She patted his shoulder before reaching past him to upright his chair.

She hated to dislodge his touch, but she wanted him to sit again considering how prone he seemed to be to falling. And that odd look that had crossed his face before taking her hand… Not feral, but not something she could readily dismiss. She tucked his chair closer to hers so they could keep touching as they sat.

Nica pulled him down, arm about his shoulder.

Naj was grateful when Nica didn’t press further. He hated to disrupt the show, even if it was only a practice. He was equally grateful when she tucked him back beneath her arm without hesitation. His urges to flee had been wrong. It wasn’t more solitude he needed. It was this. This quiet companionship and easy acceptance was what his soul had been seeking. Home.

He nestled down in his chair, laying his head on Nica’s shoulder once more. He would not speak again, with dancers on stage, but he let his peacefully full aura speak for him.

Several more acts of varying types went by – some overtly sexual, some designed to tease and incite laughter, and others that existed simply to remind the audience of the sheer beauty held in physical movement. For the most part, Nica held her counsel through the rest of practice. There were only a few more performances she offered her advice on, and even then, only verbally and when clearly sought after.

Nica knew which piece was coming as Marie settled the chair onto the middle of the stage. Her gaze slid to Naj. She hadn’t forgotten how poorly the serpent had taken to being the participant of this particular dance and it left her wondering how he would take to watching it. It shouldn’t be a problem, but she would rather be prepared.

Marie drew Rowan into the chair and took her position behind him. She’d changed her costume into one Nica remembered – a black skirt slung low and cut high with red lacy underwear underneath and a halter top that was just a long piece of red cloth carefully tied around her waist and neck.

When the song started, Marie followed the same movements as she had when she had danced with Naj, pulling Rowan up and moving around him, chasing him around the chair. This time though, every dip and circle flashed the red lace beneath her skirt. Rowan looked ill at ease, but not panicked, as he still ducked from her arms and backed away. When she drew him back and circled him, Nica could barely spot when she carefully untied part of her halter to loop around his waist. It was a skilled maneuver that most of the audience would miss. When he tried to flee the second time, her top tugged loose, revealing the sparkly black pasties that hid her nipples, but otherwise bared her petite breasts.

The loop of fabric tied them together and she used it to her advantage, pulling Rowan back and encouraging him to move with her. As the song pressed longer, he seemed to lose his unwillingness and the song finally ended with his hands on her hips and her knee drawn up to his hips as he dipped her backwards.

Naj felt very small and foolish.

Out of context, the dance had been overwhelming. He’d have reacted just as poorly to Lena and Emily, or– dare he imagine it, Kain’s– dance if it had been thrust upon him without warning, as Marie’s had been this morning. Seeing it with a ready partner, as part of a whole set that offered more of the same and occasional breaks from such, it was clear he had overreacted. He would have to apologize to Marie, at some point.

Or, perhaps not. She had seemed alright when he’d seen her earlier, and there had been no hesitation in her performance now. It wouldn’t do to upset her needlessly. He would watch, and wait, as always.

After a few more acts, the stage stayed empty. Everyone slowly meandered downstairs or out for a quick lunch. Nica glanced to the clock, only a little surprised when it wasn’t quite three. Sitting and watching had seemed to take much longer, and yet take no time at all. Nica stretched, arching her back to pull the muscles taunt, but subtly, so she didn’t push Naj away. She probably should have warmed up before dancing earlier. Or at least afterwards, ah well.

She looked down at Naj. “Three o’clock marks the point that everyone needs to cool down and get ready for tonight. We have two hours before opening, so there’s time for a quick meal and a shower before we open the club.”

He noted how carefully she moved, and quite appreciated it. But he needed to stretch himself, so when she finished explaining where everyone had gone, he slipped out of his seat and reached high overhead. When his spine cracked, he dropped his arms with a satisfied sigh and a grin.

So there is also time for those of us that have been sitting this entire time to get some much needed exercise?”

Nica raised an eyebrow when Naj stood to stretch, then smiled. “True. More than enough, since neither of us will work tonight.” She stood as well, mimicking Naj’s stretch from a moment ago. “The training at Ariella’s nest has meant I’ve been getting little sleep the past few weeks, so I intended to take the night off myself.”

Foolish, but he felt better knowing he wouldn’t be the only one abstaining. He would have wondered if Nica was doing it only for him, but he knew first hand how hard a raptor would push its nest. She doubtlessly needed her rest.

Which meant it was time for Naj to repay her kindness, by giving her time to rest. Watching the nest dance had helped him feel more at home with them, and it was time he struck out on his own. At least for a little while.

He checked himself before giving her a proper bow, but he did still politely incline his head before speaking again. “Thank you for your kindness this day. I appreciate all you have done, especially in light of how tired you must be. Look after yourself now, eija, and I will trust myself to the care of my new nestmates.”

His earnestness brought a chuckle to her lips and she reached out to embrace him. “They will doubtless enjoy that.”

Naj winced, but kept his good humor. “I should go now, then, before I realize the folly of such a decision.” With another half bow, he turned and mounted the stage, disappearing behind the curtains.

Of course, once he was behind the curtain, it was another story entirely. He stopped cold, staring at the chaos, completely unsure of where to start.

While his departure seemed abrupt, she supposed he had been serious about his joke. Nica watched him vanish behind the curtain, considering.

He had been doing so well between the gardens and practice. Falling from his chair aside, his energy had been constant and warm. Even that fall was understandable though. Gwen could have that affect on anyone and for a serpent susceptible to her aura, it could be overwhelming.

Nica was surprised he’d done so well with it, considering his morning.

From the corner of her eye, Nica spotted Dev stepping behind the bar to check in with the computer. If the pair of them were alone, she might as well use the moment to speak with the demon.

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