After Maleo, I think it’s time for a sweetheart. 🙂
As always, you can find this on the character bios page. If you have any more questions about Lena, or suggestions on who I should draw next, drop them in the comments.
In which Nica and Naj play well together.
Nica left the showers to redress in her room, picking a deep red sarong to tie about her waist and a rich golden halter to go with it. By now everyone should be upstairs finishing the last minute details for opening the club.
She sighed as she tied the halter around her neck, glancing at the mirror only briefly as she did so. Part of her knew she should be upstairs to double check everything, as was her usual habit. But a larger part of her kept reminding her that they’d opened the club without her for two years. They knew what they were doing – and her compulsion didn’t doubt that.
Without her usual busywork to keep her thoughts from stumbling over themselves though, she was at a bit of a loss.
The bickering with Kain had taken much of the weight out of her chest, but the massage and heat had left her languid. Combined with the accumulated nights without sleep… She was beginning to feel the weariness in her bones.
She ran her hands through her hair – it was almost dry, at least as much as toweling it ever got. Her feathers reappeared and she raised and lowered them as her fingers brushed the hair away from her face. Good enough. She wasn’t planning on making a public appearance tonight anyway. Kain was right about that much, she should take the night for herself.
Just the notion felt strange to her – in Ariella’s nest, sure, what else was she to do when not actively working, but here? Here her habit was to be in constant motion, to be preemptive about whatever might need her attention. It was odd to be home, but not busying herself. To most, being home meant relaxing, resting, but she’d always done the opposite, only resting when away from the nest and not responsible for everyone around her.
The faint strains of music caught her attention.
She turned her head, listening. The sound was coming from downstairs, it had to be. The wards that separated the two floors was warded to keep the sound of the show from penetrating the lower level.
Who was still downstairs?
Her bare feet padded along the tiled floor in the hallway as she sought out the source of the music. The closer she came to the Great Room, the clearer it became. A man’s voice, soft and low, the sound of a foot dully hitting a rug. The words sounded wrong, refusing to resolve themselves to meaning in her ears, until understanding turned the key. They were in the old language.
If he was singing and dancing, then he must be feeling well. Music was as necessary to a serpent as breathing.
Nica paused at the edge of the Great Room, simply watching. Naj was beautiful in motion. The gauntness of his frame seemed lost behind the pulse of his aura. It swirled thick around him, emphasized in his hands as he formed each symbol carefully. It mingled with his voice on the air, body swaying to the beat his soles struck out. The song was almost familiar, something that hung on the tip of her tongue, but eluded her.
She moved into the space quietly, letting his aura flow against hers. It was peaceful, warm and inviting.
A small drum sitting at the end of one of the couches caught her eye and she smiled. Her heart ached to join him, but she was not certain which dance he was performing and the weariness was still drawing on her muscles.
She could, however, give him a beat. Nica settled near Naj on the floor, tucking the drum between her knees. After watching his feet a moment to catch the rhythm, she began to softly tap out the beat. As he continued to dance, her movements became more sure and stronger. She swayed as she played, letting the melody fill her. Without thinking, it began to spill out of her throat in wordless notes, letting her harmony twine with his song.
His mind wanted to stumble when the soft drumbeats began, but his feet would not let him. The song fell from his lips with the weight of years, the simple child’s melody too easy to forget. A soft thump of his heart chased his head from the dance, and with a smile, Naj turned on the next step that brought him up on his toes to face his eija’ramn.
What an odd mix she was. From the waist down, she was all serpent, red sarong falling open on one side to show a long line of tawny skin. Her legs’ grip on the drum showed the dancers’ habit of being ready to rise at any moment and join the dance. But her golden top brought out the raptor intensity in her eyes, and the cut left her shoulders free and clear for wings. Her voice was strong with the powerful lungs she’d need to survive long flights at high altitudes, but bent gently to simple nursery tune.
Seth simply didn’t know what to make of her.
Naj was ecstatic to dance to Nica’s drum. There was a rightness to singing with his eija’ramn, to shifting his feet to move where her beats led—even as she adjusted to play to his footfalls. It shouldn’t work, this seamless joining of disparate parts, but somehow among serpents it was always this way, and Naj’s heart soared with the pure joy of it. More than just the basic synergy of two artists musing and merging into a cohesive unit, this was something transcendent. It would be much the same when others joined the dance, unified under the strong heart of their eija’ramn.
A part of him wanted to go upstairs, to see his nestmates’ show in its completeness, now that the audiences’ aura could mingle with the dancers’ joy. But Naj was unwilling to break the magic of this moment just yet. The simple harmony of it was so beautiful and so peaceful, he wanted to stretch it and make it last.
He grew more confident as the song looped back to the chorus and he fell into the matching steps. Power began to flow with the words and gestures, whispers of the primal forces they named. LightDark. FireIce. AirWater. SpiritEarth. The names of the gods, hDaeos, were subtly different from the mundane elements of the same name, and the sound shifted the nature of all the surrounding lyrics. He could hear Nica adjusting along with him, and he dropped to more simple notes when he could hear her building something more complex. The give and take of the music was magical, and they worked well together, both functionally and emotionally. By the time the “song” came to its natural conclusion, they were both smiling and relaxed, but keyed into each other. If they so willed it, they could call up mountains, summon rainstorms, lighten the darkest night. In this simple melody, his ki’n had bowed to hers, had stepped into the circle of the nest she led. He was ready to dance for her.
Nica rolled her shoulders when they finished, feeling the elation that comes from a good impromptu merging of energies through music. It filled her head and heart like a warm syrup, heavy, thick and sweet. It was something she thought she had left behind at Ariella’s nest.
The first spark of hope lightened her heart. To be home, but still feel this heady connection with a fellow dancer? It was a high that she often mused was why serpents stayed banded together in nests.
A hand caressed the soft skin of the drum, watching him as she did so. His easy posture and eager light to his eye… He had only begun to dance. Her smile widened and she inclined her head slightly, shifting the drum. It was a subtle invitation to offer to drum for him if he wanted to dance again, a motion understood by all serpents.
He rose to the balls of his feet, letting himself stretch to his full height, arms overhead, a long long line as stretched as he could be. He released like a cut marionette, and rolled back up til his chin was up and his shoulders relaxed and back. He turned his body on a slight angle but kept his eyes locked on Nica. He gave a nod for her to begin and closed his eyes, ready to let her music seep into his limbs.
Her smile warmed as she watched him stretch, growing eager to see how he moved to a proper song. When he nodded, she began to pound out a simple enough beat, her voice taking a more lilting note to imitate the flute that was missing. It was a basic serpent style, but she’d build on it to add some speed and complexity, then give it a cool down to watch how he interpreted it into movement.
Naj had enjoyed the simple steps of the prim’narix, but the now the sound of challenge filled the drums, and the fire within him was eager to rise to it. He started slowly enough, hips sliding in elegant circles, back and forth in sultry movements. As he became more sure of which rhythms she was building, he rose up off his heels, letting his body sway with the rocking steps. He moved as if the air became thick around him, music flowing like water and pulling his body with the ebb and flow of the beats. As the beat began to pick up, he dropped down off his toes, the motion traveling up his legs into percussive drops of his hips. He moved in circles, letting his arms become the visual focus as he used the circling to get the feel of the shift in the music. As he came around front, he brought his arms together and separated them again in a new frame work, needing more time to suss out what Nica intended to do musically.
As he found an opening in the rhythm, he brought himself out of the circles and into a more complex step, focusing more on the feet than visually arresting arm work. This was the time to show off his dexterity and skill, to impress the audience with the talent of both dancer and musician. As he threw himself into the music, he forgot he was performing for the discerning eyes of only his eija. He could be in front of one or one thousand- when he was dancing, it didn’t matter. There was the drum, there was his feet, and there was anyone else he shared the music with. That was all. The audience would be drawn in or they would not, he could not move them anymore than he himself was moved, and he was expressing that joy in the purest way he knew how.
As the music exhausted itself and began to draw to its natural close, Naj drew his arms back into the performance. He began to step into the classic rei’ramn poses of story telling. He wasn’t dancing any tale in particular, simply choosing those that fit the moment, holding positions long enough for the eye to drink in the shape, then stepping through into through into the next pose. He slowed himself with the music, until his core simply swayed in the directions his arms were taking him. At this point, all experiencing the dance would be drained, and waiting to be released from its spell. He shaped the air now as it had shaped him earlier, cutting swathes and shapes as if directing spirits no one could see. He moved in the shapes of thanks and praise, giving the energy he had raised back into the earth, the dancers, the musicians and the audience, and ending with his face upraised and hands uplifted in an offering to the gods. He held that pose, heart racing to the last beat of the drum, where he then let himself sink to his knees, forehead pressing into the floor, palms stretched out before him. It was the dancers’ respite, eipratei, giving and accepting thanks for the dance. And recovering from it. The higher magics could leave the dancer laid out for days, connected to the earth and spirits around them, drawing in the energy spent, seeking balance. Naj would not need to rest for that long, after such a simple dance, but he did need a moment to compose himself before rising to face Nica.
Nica found herself drawn into his dance, altering some of the melody to better accommodate his movements and style. He was a wonderful dancer, precise and flowing. His movements hailed from a similar traditional style to the one she used. Though his body was still thin, it was clear that his heart had not forgotten the beat of a drum.
She recognized some of the movements his fingers made from rei’ramn that she’d performed with her family as a child, though time had blurred their meanings. When he finally sank into a resting pose, she bowed her head over her drum, offering her own silent thanks for the beauty of his dance.
It also gave her time to compose herself, to quell the prick of tears in her eyes. Perhaps it was merely her deep weariness, or perhaps it was the reminder of her lost family, but there was a gentle, pulsing ache in her chest.
When her eyes were clear, she raised her head, finding Naj still stretched out in rest.
She set the small drum to the side and smoothed her sarong across her thighs.
When he finally tilted his head to regard her, she gave him a warm smile. “That was beautiful, thank you.”
Naj lifted his head enough to acknowledge he was ready to be addressed. He was still deeply tired, more tired than he should have been from such easy dancing. Had he raised more energy than he’d thought? He hadn’t danced with his soul like that for quite some time. But he was keeping both of them from true rest the longer he lingered so he made the effort to lift himself from the floor. He swayed where he sat, and giving up, his shoulders sagged, and he smiled.
“e’ramn, ei’ariyei.” When one dances, it blesses us all.
She bowed her head slightly at the old phrase. Her mother had been fond of it.
Nica leaned forward, one hand outstretched in offering. After such a connection, it seemed wrong not to be touching, to offer her energy, as little as it was to his obvious weariness.
“I look forward to the chance to dance with you.” Her smile softened, feeling her own tiredness and making a decision. “But first, we should rest.”
“I agree on both counts.”
He reached for her hand, arm feeling like lead. He’d definitely overdone it. But he didn’t regret it. Not one bit.
As his hand closed around hers, an electric jolt raced up his arm. It was nothing like the heat or the visions from before, but it rocked him all the same. He knew it now as the call of an eija, the dancemaster’s call to all that were her own. He drew a ragged breath, struggling to find balance in the power that surged through him. It felt good, once he overcame the shock of it, but swallowing it down had been difficult. And now that he had it, he didn’t want to let it go.
“It will be several hours before anyone else comes down to sleep, yes?”
Nica nodded as she hummed her agreement. With a steadying breath, she took to her feet, using her hold on Naj to draw him up as well.
“The last show ends around one, then cleaning the front of house takes almost another hour.” She paused only briefly to wonder if that was still the same, then dismissed the distraction.
“And many will stay up, even when they come downstairs afterwards.”
He leaned into her, unable to remain upright without her. She likely knew this, just as she likely new he wouldn’t have the energy to keep himself warm either, but it was impolite to assume.
“If I may, then, perhaps we might bed down together? A nest of two is always warmer than a nest of one.”
Nica chuckled softly, wrapping an arm around him as he swayed into her. “I would welcome the company.”
She moved them to her room, sweeping the tapestry aside with an easy movement. Now that sleep was so close at hand, her own tiredness was weighing heavily on her. She paused just inside the doorway to bank the lights, then sank into her bed with relief, beckoning Naj with a languid arm to join her.
“If I warm you too much, don’t hesitate to wake me. I’m a light sleeper, but fall back asleep just as easily.” Her hand smoothed along his shoulder, movements automatic as sleep clouded her mind.
The most he could manage was a low murmur of sound as he leaned into her touch. He was nearly dead on his feet– the day hadn’t been that full, had it?
Let’s see. Spending the night spinning il’li-ramn, the morning drowning in visions, the afternoon as a serpent and the evening in communion with h’Daeos and your eija’ramn. No, I can’t fathom why you’d be this tired.
But Naj was too tired to care, half asleep on his feet already. If the room hadn’t been so familiarly serpent, he might have stumbled or hesitated. But the big nest of blankets was soft and inviting, holding close the scents and comfort of the many arms that had slept there. It had a cold, slightly empty smell, but it was the kind of empty of a sky barely brushed with dawn, the pause between a long night and budding day. Somehow, Naj found this promise of life more comfortable than if the nest had been overflowing with it, and he sank into sleep almost as quickly as he’d sank into the blankets.
As she felt the warmth of his body touch hers, she curled into it without thinking, wrapping one arm around his waist. When she felt skin on skin, she could feel her muscles give up what little tension they still held.
She inhaled the comforting scents of serpent, warmth, spice, and sweat and was asleep almost instantly.
Last update, Naj sang a song from his childhood, the pri’mn narix. Like our ABCs, the pri’mn narix, or “first song of knowing”, is one of the first songs young dancers learn. It teaches the foundation of religion and dance, each primal deity listed being associated with its own basic dance step. If I ever get really brave, I’ll make a video of the song and dance, but for now, I can at least do translations.
ARE primel aros, neret il’li
“ARE before everything, next, the il’li”
The ARE is, was, and will always be, before all else. There was no change, no Being, no Time, until the ARE split its soul into the il’li, the divine opposing pairs of creation.
Li’Il, Ki’Ik, Aehr’Rhea, Anhk, Khna
“Light and Dark, Fire and Ice, Wind and Water, Spirit and Earth”
It is important to note that these are NOT the gods, Li’Daea and the rest. These are simply elemental forces, greater than the gods, pieces of the ARE.
neret tel Daeos, esseren il’li o il’li
“Next came the gods, who are balanced forces of balanced forces”
As the il’li danced with themselves, they came to know themselves, came to share that knowing, making life and the world as we know it, but always in pairs, in perfect balance.
neret ehna etren primel a
“Next, the timeless elders, honored always before ourselves”
And then came The People, our elders, our eternal ancestors that came before, and made us who we are. Further verses go on to discuss Cheres, ancestor of cycles, ovens, and grain; Cretia, ancestor of love, union, and the heart; Rei, ancestor of tradition, stories, and order; Aria, ancestor of song and magic; Ramn, ancestor of dance and drum; Meht, ancestor of mercy and medicine; and so on. My notes on those are scattered through dozens of notebooks and years, stretching back to high school, but I’m sure with time, Seth will tell us each and every one of their stories.
As Nica stood in the entryway for the bathrooms, she lingered as she slipped out of her clothes to tuck them into one of the cubbies. What she really wanted as a good long soak in one of the big tubs, but the sooner she returned to the nest, the better.
She grabbed a towel from the clean stack and took the door to her left. It was probably as well that she didn’t sit and brood right now anyway.
She was mildly surprised to discover she had the showers all to herself. It wasn’t overly unusual, seeing as there were two rooms of showers downstairs, but somehow, she hadn’t thought she’d be completely alone. The realization made her already heavy heart a little weightier.
Nica left her towel on the bench by the hallway entrance and moved to the far wall, picking a shower head near the middle. She turned the heat on almost as high as she could stand. It created small eddies of steam at her feet and she breathed deeply, letting the moist heat settle in her lungs.
She ducked her head under the water, shaking it as she raised her feathers to let the water soak all the way through her hair. Then she let the feathers fade into her scalp. It was a pain to get them to lay right again if she shampooed them, much easier to simply shift in and out of them.
As her arms stretched overhead, she luxuriated in letting the heat relax her muscles into the movement. She pushed them a little farther than was comfortable one way, then did the same in the opposite direction. It soothed whatever stiffness she’d been feeling after the brief dance and long period of sitting. Fixating on her physicality helped her ignore the sorrow that lingered in her breast.
When she was finally ready for soap, she stepped out of the heat long enough to run her hands along the ledge of available options. She doubted she would find her particular scent, but it was worth a try anyway. Maybe she’d settle for something with patchouli…
“Looking for this?”
The rich, heavy timbre came from directly behind her ear and she jumped as she turned, her fist colliding with Kain’s chest as he laughed. She glared up at him, adrenaline trembling in her limbs as she made another fist. She debated hitting him again, but settled for cursing soundly instead.
“Thanks, old man,” She moved to snatch the soap from his hand, but he moved at the last second to keep it out of her reach, “so much for a relaxing shower.”
“Oh, come now, you could have felt me coming if you’d been paying attention. I was hardly sneaking.” He reached past her to turn on the next shower head, angling it so the two sprays combined.
“Excuse me if I didn’t feel I needed to be on guard in an empty shower room.” She sounded sulky even to her own ears, but she moved back into the warm water when he nudged her with one large hand on the small of her back.
“Mm, clearly you’ve forgotten all those horror movie marathons Chris and Travis made us sit through. An empty shower and a beautiful woman are exactly when you should be on your guard.”
The reminder of time passing wasn’t nearly as painful as she would have thought, and the memory did bring a smile to her face. The fact that it was all deliberate on Kain’s part only made her a little sore over it.
As he stepped up behind her, she raised an eyebrow. “I don’t recall inviting you into my shower.”
“If you wanted a private shower, then you picked the wrong hall.” His chest bumped her back and she shook her head, but smiled despite herself. Funny how it was easier to see the humor in the situation when one’s heart wasn’t racing.
“Yeah, yeah… Most people are adept enough at reading social cues I don’t have this problem often. Only you think you know better.”
“Shut up and enjoy your shower.” Her laughter was cut off by the feel of his hands wrapping around her shoulders, kneading the heat and scent of spice into her skin and muscles.
He chuckled as his thumb found a particularly tight cord of muscle and she groaned softly. She let her head roll to the side so he could work at it.
She could feel that same chuckle rumble through her upper back as he pulled her closer, working his hands down her arms. Sometimes it was easy to forget just how large a man he was, but as his hands completely encircled her arms, squeezing as he moved them down to her forearms, it was hard to ignore.
It wasn’t just his height, though he had nearly a foot over her own 5’9” and it was more than the wide breadth of his shoulders… There was just something more about him. He had the same unassuming presence that a mountain had, always there, but overwhelming if you thought about it too hard.
“You’re thinking too hard.” He sounded amused, but let some exasperation bleed into it. She leaned back into him, letting that quiet strength take some of her weight.
Before she could make a joke of it, he spoke again. “I am glad you’re back.”
The same sentiment lodged in her throat and she stayed silent as he nudged her arms over her head to rest along his shoulders. His hands worked the lather over her ribs and she sighed. “I –”
“Still haven’t learned how to relax, I know.” He worked his thumbs into the small of her back, pushing down to lengthen her spine. She moaned softly as she felt something in her lower back give way.
“Breathe.” As she took a deep breath of warm air, he pressed harder and she felt something else pop back into place. Her body sagged in response and he chuckled again, hands holding her hips until the boneless feeling passed enough for her to stand again.
As they stood silently in the hot water, she began to laugh softly. She shook her head at his inquiring sound. “I was just thinking that perhaps I missed you too. It’s hard to tell sometimes with how aggravating you are. The massages might make up for it.” She laughed again. “Maybe.”
His laughter joined hers. “Maybe, hm? Clearly I’m not doing my job right.”
“Clearly. You’re a terrible sec-“ Her words caught in her throat as his thumbs dug into the pulse points on her hips, causing her limbs to feel momentarily like jelly.
She was grateful that he could support her weight so effortlessly, as it took her a moment to regain her ability to stand. Or speak.
Of course, she hadn’t forgotten the cause and as soon as she was standing of her own accord, she turned and hit him in the bicep. He laughed and she thought about hitting him harder, but gave it up. She wasn’t trying to start a fight she knew she’d lose and she wasn’t honestly trying to hurt him.
Nica shook her head and determinedly reached for the shampoo.
The shampoo that was suddenly out of reach. She scowled and he chuckled. When she tried to grab it from him again, he maneuvered so that his arm was pinning hers at her side. Her body was simply too languid from the massage to be quick enough to dodge him.
“Let me. Think of it as…” He paused, absently rubbing his chin along her hair. She would be annoyed by the gesture, but she doubted he even realized he was doing it. Damn cat. “There’s really no way to sell this to you. You’ll resist pampering, you’ll resist being taken care of… So just let yourself enjoy it, will you?”
She sighed, but relaxed against him again. It wasn’t quite a surrender, but she knew he would read her intent.
As he moved to run his fingers through her hair, she muttered, “Such a charmer you are.”
“You hate being charmed. You think everyone charming is up to something.”
She crossed her arms under her breasts, annoyed that he wasn’t wrong. “Which is entirely your own doing.”
“Mm…” He did something to her scalp that made her eyes flutter shut. She almost missed what he said next because of it. “I wouldn’t be half so effective as your eijye if you didn’t take everything I said with a grain of salt.”
She paused, the sassy retort fading from her lips. She let his words roll around in her head a moment. “Did you just admit to being my second in command?”
His movement stopped abruptly and he heaved a great sigh before continuing. “Did I have a choice when I no longer had you to hide behind?”
His massage took some of the sting out of his words, but she couldn’t help but sigh as well. “I suppose not.”
The silence settled between them as he finished, rinsed, and had begun running conditioner through her hair when she spoke again.
“How is the nest doing?” Her voice was soft, but not uncertain. She had an idea just from the brief interactions of today, but she wanted confirmation that she wasn’t as unfamiliar with the nest as she feared she would be.
“They’re alright. Everyone found their own ways to cope – Em is throwing more pottery for charities and Ro has been bumped to some kind of stage manager at the college for the drama group. Lena has been seeing Jon more lately and Chris has been encouraging her continuing to grow out of her little shell. Marie…” He paused to rinse the conditioner out, and she could almost feel him picking and discarding the words he wanted before he spoke again.
“Marie has been getting better, the nightmares are fewer and farther between. She doesn’t wake up sparking anymore, but… She is more subdued than she once was. It doesn’t stop her from having fun with the rest of the nest, but she has more quiet times.” He sounded tired and she couldn’t stop the small pang of guilt she felt for that.
Nica nodded, running a hand over her hair when Kain was finished. “Thank you.”
“Anytime.” His grin was in place as she turned around and he ran a hand over his own cropped short scalp. “It’s nice to actually have hair to wash sometimes.”
She laughed and shook her head, letting the seriousness wash away. “I can’t imagine you with a mop of your own – you’re already entirely too much as it is.” She faked a shudder.
He laughed as he reached past her to shut off both showers. “And you like it that way, don’t bother denying it.”
“Yes, I love that there’s so much of you to be aggravating.” She kept her tone dry as she stalked past him for her towel.
“I know.” She threw his towel at his face, but he caught it before it could hit. Much to his amusement.
Once Kain had left, Naj had relaxed considerably. He let Marie draw him over to the table, calling out an agreement to whatever Travis was asking. He wasn’t a picky eater, despite Marie’s warning giggle.
Kain had been right. Cereal ala Travis was a sugary mess. Between that and Marie’s infectious energy, Naj was buzzing with more energy than when he’d first come downstairs for some exercise. When the others all excused themselves to get ready, Naj moved into the center of the Great Room to run through some paces.
He was in high spirits as he danced a few light steps in the open space. They weren’t from any one dance in particular, just whatever came to mind. After all the various acts from earlier, he couldn’t find any one beat in his heart to follow. He would have to see about getting some drums to practice to. The simple difference between empty sound and the pulse of a living drum was astounding. It invigorated the blood, brought dance bubbling to the surface in even the most novice dancer.
“There’s plenty of instruments upstairs, assuming you can’t find what you want already lying around down here. Your nestmates are messy.”
Kain chuckled as Naj whirled around, startled by the sudden company. He’d been wrapped up in trying to untangle his roiling energies, and the cat was rather good at sneaking, he’d noticed. He tried not to notice how underdressed Kain was, however. It was one thing to drink him in on stage, but it was rude to oggle someone who was just moving about their home. Still, there was an awful lot to not notice.
“I have to get upstairs, but I’m sure there’s someone about who will drum for you when you’re ready.”
He nodded to towards the corner, and Naj turned to follow his gaze. A lap drum, a guitar, reedy flute and a tambourine. By the time he’d turned back to thank Kain, he was already gone. Ah well. He should get back to work as well.
He started to hum, snatches from one of the prim’narix songs. They were little more than children’s games, honestly, but they were the first songs serpent learned to dance to. As he hummed and danced, the lyrics began to come back to him, until he was shaping the story of it with body and words.
ARE primel aros, neret il’li
Li’Il, Ki’Ik, Aehr’Rhea, Anhk, Khna
neret tel Daeos, esseren il’li o il’li
neret ehna etren primel a
For those of you that don’t know, I have a page of my Tumblr dedicated to Asylum inspiration. Some of it might be potentially spoilery (though I do try to be very mindful of such things, I do tend to reference characters that haven’t been born yet), and Asylum is home to a burlesque stage show, so some might be NSFW. But if you want a peeky peek into my brain, here ya go. 🙂
Nica paused at the base of the stairs to take in the Great Room and kitchen beyond. It was a relief to be home.
She watched as Emily handed Rowan a bowl of something she’d heated up and the small smile they exchanged told her that they still weren’t dating yet. At the table, Marie was animatedly chatting at Nat over their plates. Lena was still fishing around in the fridge for her own meal, her long, white leopard’s tail swishing happily from side to side.
Rowan’s expression lit up as he noticed Nica’s approach to the kitchen. She smiled in response, opening her posture to accept the hug she knew was coming.
“Hey, Nica, glad to see you.” It was cute, watching him try to juggle his bowl as he pulled back. Emily was giggling in the background as she leaned against the counter to wait for him.
“It’s good to see you too.” She let her gaze slip over each of the dancers present and her smile grew. “And good to be home.”
She could feel the emotion relax, as if a collective sigh had pushed through the room.
Lena peered around Ro, a block of cheese in hand. “For good?”
Nica nodded and the tension unwound further. “For good.”
Marie cheered from the table, then promptly burst into giggles. Nica shook her head and moved past Ro and Lena to fish around for some cheese and crackers for herself. It would be a small meal, but she didn’t feel overly hungry after dealing with Dev.
The group moved on from the moment, Ro and Em taking a couch and falling into a heavy conversation. Lena joined Nat and Marie at the table, where they kept breaking into small spurts of giggles – it sounded as if they were quoting a movie they’d all seen recently.
Nica leaned against the counter as she nibbled her dinner. It really was nice to be home, to have the motions of the nest move around her again in comfortable waves. She was surprised it had been Lena to ask the question they were all afraid to ask though – when had her shy little snow leopard become so brave? It was depressing to realize how much she’d missed. Even as everything stayed the same, everything changed. Everything kept moving forward and she… She hadn’t been here to move forward with it.
She finished the cracker in her hand and put the remnants away before retreating from the kitchen. She’d lost what bit of appetite she’d had.
He should move forward.
Naj stood in the middle of the hallway, knowing he should take the few short steps that would carry him the rest of the way into the main room. It was foolish, but the sounds of laughter and happy chatter had drawn him up short. Everyone seemed so at ease with each other– and why shouldn’t they? They were family. And he was not. And he knew it.
But standing here wouldn’t change that, and he knew that as well. Still, it was so tempting to just curl up in the shadows and listen, enjoying the nearness of everyone’s friendliness without being subjected to it.
Travis stretched as he emerged from his room, wearing a clean tee and jeans. He tilted his head as he spied Naj ahead, simply standing in the hallway. A grin split his face and he strode up behind the smaller man, clapping him on the shoulder. “You didn’t have to wait on me.”
If he hadn’t been so intent on stillness just the moment before, Naj’s fighting instincts would have undoubtedly taken over. Even still, the fraction of hesitation before action hadn’t kept Naj from gripping the wolf’s wrist and tensing for the throw. Damn. He really needed to work on that. Perhaps he should encourage everyone to keep sneaking up on him until he grew accustomed to it?
He awkwardly transformed the grip into a pat, voice only slightly shaky. “I preferred to. I, uh… I’m still not totally comfortable in the kitchen on my own.”
“Huh?” Travis glanced down, then ahead. After a moment, he laughed, squeezing Naj’s shoulder. “You wouldn’t be alone, There’s already people in the kitchen.”
He paused, then inhaled deeply, reading the room beyond by scent. “Let’s see… Lena’s is easy, she’s the soft floral. The spicy lemon is Marie, the buttery sweet one is Nat,” he inhaled again, “The woody one is Ro, Em is a really dark sweet flower. And…” He frowned slightly, rocking his head slightly as he thought it over. “The other one’s kinda spicy – oh! Nica must have just left.”
Having figured it out, he grinned down at Naj.
Naj obligingly sniffed the air, even though he knew his sense of smell wouldn’t be as developed. Closing his eyes didn’t help much, but he thought caught at least the spicy scent the wolf was referencing. Mostly, all he could smell was Travis, an earthy musk. It surely didn’t help that Naj was covered in the wolf’s soap himself. Ah well. He knew his eija by aura well enough, and if he was really curious about her scent, well, surely there would be more time one on one later.
Naj opened his eyes again and offered Travis an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry, my friend, my nose is no match for yours.”
Travis’s grin widened. “Yep! Hard to beat a wolf nose.” He shook Naj’s shoulder jovially, then pulled him forward. “Don’t worry, I can’t dance to save my life.”
He let Travis’s good humor wash over him, wrapping it around him like a blanket. He could do this, he could. He had already at least met everyone that Travis had named, and with everyone busy eating, surely it would keep the attention from focusing too much on himself, right?
Deep down, Naj knew better. He knew dancers, and no matter what breed, dancers loved to gossip. Until he was no longer “the new guy”, everyone would be eager for whatever tidbits they could get.
No time like the present. He let Travis’s urgings pull them into the Great Room and the waiting crowd.
Nica paused in the hallway as she passed Marie and Nat’s room to give a quick look over the sketches there. She had always loved Marie’s style of drawing, and while she was sad to notice that all sketches including Jax had been taken down, she wasn’t surprised. More surprising was how few new ones there were.
She continued down the hallway to find the door to her room closed. She hadn’t been the one to close it and wondered if that was Kain’s doing. She pushed the door fully open, drawing the tapestry across instead. She’d always preferred the illusion of privacy, while still allowing the nest access to her.
Her room was still warm and inviting, even after two years. Each wall was covered with tapestries, some bearing symbols for peace and hope. A few bore symbols similar to the one she wore around her waist – acknowledgments of Fate’s design, and the hope that such offerings were enough to keep the devious Goddess’s focus away. While everyone must follow the path Fate laid, having her direct attention was rarely a good thing in the old tales.
Overall the room was a riot of reds and oranges and golds, though the overall effect was soothing and not overwhelming. Even the ceiling was draped in a darker tapestry embroidered with the signs of the heavens, so the room felt smaller and more intimate.
Her tired eyes were drawn to the corner of the room where a pallet of blankets and pillows lay. Nica made a face, realizing that it should be laundered before she attempted to sleep tonight. The last thing she wanted was to collapse into her nest and have a cloud of dust choke her.
On the wall to the right was a large wooden vanity. The surface of which was full of statues and incense. As she drew closer, she frowned slightly, running a finger along the flat surface. No dust.
She rubbed her fingers together, gazing unseeing at a small figurine. Someone must have dusted the room fairly recently, but who?
The only reasonable answer was Kain, but somehow, she couldn’t picture the large man carefully moving and dusting the space where she kept her small tokens. It was both soothing and a reminder of how wrong everything had been.
Nica carefully untied and folded the crimson scarf about her waist. She laid it with the Ksm symbol facing upwards, smoothing a hand over it with a small smile as she thought about Kis wrapping it around her.
She looked up to see the rest of her vanity. The mirror had small symbols carved into it, designed to keep anyone from peeking in on her through it or sending negativity to her. Once she would have thought them superstition, but with all she’d seen in her life… Well, right now they were reassuring.
Stuck in the frame of the mirror were pictures. Many were black and white, some taken while photography was still a slightly blurred, imperfect science. Still, the reminders of the smiling faces were all she needed to fill in the blanks. She could hear their individual laughter, see the sun shine on copper skin that faded to black scales. The faint caress of a loving hand as someone softly hummed.
Her vision blurred and she forced her eyes to brighter pictures, newer ones. These were mostly stuck to the walls around the mirror, too many for frames. In one, a younger, more freckle faced Marie held up one of her first paintings she’d made in summer camp. In another, a group of dancers from Ariella’s nest grinned for the camera, costumes blending into one chaotic, beautiful mess. Another one showed her own nest several years ago, and her smile faded slightly to see Jax holding Marie’s hand in the group photo. In another, she and Kis posed cheek to cheek – Nica thought that was taken after Kis’s first performance with Ariella’s nest.
And so many others, with so many more people that had come into her life… And so many who had gone. She touched a group photo that included Bastian, then turned with a sigh. Death wasn’t the only way to burn a bridge.
Such morbid thoughts for what should have been a joyous return home. Nica pinched the bridge of her nose. Joyous return… Who was she kidding? The nest was happy to have her back, but she’d only agreed to return because everything wasn’t right. An unpredictable serpent wielding Fate only knew what sort of magic – and that wasn’t even accounting for the demon threatening to knock on their door.
She’d returned to a nest on the brink. And most of them didn’t even know. What if disaster was all that was left? What if Fate was finally taking her price for their previous years of happiness?
When she opened her eyes again, a citrine statue of Li’Daea caught her eye and she sighed again. Squeezing her eyes shut, she forced herself to take another long breath and blow it out, then did it again. And again.
Thoughts like that were unbecoming. Especially if she was supposed to lead this dance. She could only hear Nema’s voice too well, reminding her that Fate would tighten the threads as she would, we could only dance to the notes we were allowed to hear.
Sometimes looking at the statue that had once been her cousin’s, she swore she could still feel Nema’s hand in her hair, smoothing over her feathers. It was her song she heard when she fell asleep. And it was her words of wisdom that still guided her.
She rubbed the back of her hand across her damp eyes. She couldn’t rest yet and she didn’t have time to mourn. Nica had wasted too many years of her life mourning. There were those still living that needed her.
She would take her shower and rejoin the nest.
“Naj!” Marie’s voice broke through the softer babble of the group. Nat smiled and continued eating, but her other hand was on Marie’s wrist, patting it lightly. Lena beamed as the pair of them walked into the kitchen. Travis knew his answering smile was sappy, but whatev. He did really like Lena, and she liked him, though he knew she liked Chris more. It didn’t bother him, the pair of them were cute together, and they all had plenty of good fun together.
“I guess I’m chopped liver.” Travis cracked the joke as he leaned over to ruffle Lena’s hair and she giggled.
From the couch, Em laughed too and he grinned. She pointed her fork at him, “I’d say you’re something a lot lighter than liver.”
“Smells about as good though.” Ro wrinkled his nose with feigned distaste, though his own grin ruined it. He glanced over at Naj, deliberately ignoring Travis’s sound of protest, “Glad to see you again, how’s it going?”
“Yeah,” Emily added, scooping another bite up from her bowl. “How’d you like watching practice?”
Naj was saved from having to follow Travis around like a young pup by Rowan and Emily engaging him. He gave them both a grateful smile and leaned up against the arm of the couch across the way. It let him both keep an eye on Travis and appear more relaxed as he spoke with them– it was the best he could do until it felt truly genuine. He did like the pair of them– they were subdued, like Nat. He waved to her and Marie before giving his current conversation his full attention.
“It was quite a show, to be sure.”
He could feel a distinctly uncobra-like blush creep up his neck at the thought of certain acts, but he doubted present company would comment.
Emily laughed and Rowan nodded. His eyes darted to Emily, enjoying the easy way she flicked a lock of stray hair from her eyes. Ro averted his gaze quickly, returning to Naj. The flush of rose wasn’t too obvious against the pale olive of the new dancer’s skin, but it was a cue Ro was used to watching for.
“It’s less overwhelming when you’re not the sole audience.” Ro took a thoughtful bite and looked back to Em when she added, “It’s also easier when you have your own act to focus on. Sometimes I still get awestruck by Gwen when she takes the stage.”
She shivered lightly and Rowan nodded.
Naj’s flush rose higher as he remembered losing his seat earlier.
“I’m, uh, glad I’m not the only one…”
“Not at all.” Ro shrugged a shoulder, setting his empty bowl behind him on the counter. “It usually takes new dancers a little while to adjust – from what I hear, even dancers with a lot of experience are a little taken aback by our nest and club.”
Nat’s voice joined the conversation as she rose from the table with her empty plate. “It’s the setting as well as the fact that we’re such a mixed bunch. With a wider range of strengths and abilities, there always seems to be something new… And the club encourages showcasing those skills in a very energetic way.”
Emily nodded, turning to glance at Nat as the woman rinsed her dish and placed it in the dishwasher. Nat straightened, rubbing a hand along her soft cream pants. “The Ikelo still give me pause when they take the stage, and I’ve been here the longest save for Kain or Nica.”
At the mention of the twins, both Ro and Em shuddered. Rowan laughed, handing his bowl to Nat when she reached for it. “I don’t know anyone that those two don’t unsettle.”
“Kain.” It was Marie’s bubbly giggle that broke in this time and Nat smiled at the sound as she nodded.
“That’s because nothing rattles Kain.” Em mused.
Their chatter was comfortable, but Naj found he had nothing to add. He didn’t remember what face– or faces, rather– to associate with Ikelo. And Kain… He could listen to stories about Kain all day, but he wasn’t quite ready to comment on the man that intrigued him so.
“Mm, Nica comes close.” Nat moved back to the table to collect Marie’s plate. Marie laughed again as she added, “I think Kain rattles Nica more than the other way around.”
“Well, I did say close.” Nat’s expression softened as she smiled down at Marie.
“Do you think it’s a personality thing or a being in charge thing?” Ro asked no one in particular, though he was looking in Nat’s direction.
The slim woman shrugged.
“I think it’s a why is this a group discussion thing.” The rich, rolling voice held laughter as it broke through the chatter. Grins broke out as Kain entered the room. He gave everyone an assessing gaze, then shook his head. “Dancers – a rotten group of gossips, the lot of you.”
Naj froze at the voice behind him, going completely serpent still. He knew that Kain was laughing, knew that the other dancers were still smiling, but Naj just couldn’t shake the feeling of raw power that radiated from the large man. How was everyone else unaffected? Could they not smell the rich blend of herbs, feel the steady heat of sun-warmed rock– it was nearly as strong as it had been in the garden. Whatever blends Kain mixed in the laundry room, it was potent, and heady.
But the other dancers carried on laughing and teasing, as if their eijye were just another mate to gossip with.
Nat laughed, pointing a utensil at him as she moved back to the dishwasher. “As if you don’t encourage our gossip.”
“Me?” He raised a hand to his chest, mocking. “Hardly. I try to mind my business and you all sit around speculating. Surely you have better things to do.”
As if by cue, Em and Ro slipped away, leaving their dishes on the counter for Nat. They waved to everyone with smiles, then exited past Kain, who was still shaking his head. Lena left next, wiggling her fingers at Naj as she passed.
Without Lena to keep him at the table, Travis rose to rifle through kitchen cabinets. “Hey, Naj, you want cereal? I think I’m going to make cereal.”
Kain snorted. “Cereal hardly needs making.”
“Yeah, well, It’s my favorite type of cooking.” Travis laughed, mostly at himself. “’Sides, we’re out of cold pizza.”
A sigh slipped from Kain and he shook his head. He glanced to Naj, “If you’d rather have something not overly sugary, there’s plenty of fruit, cheese, and other snacks.”
“I’m fine to have whatever is already being made, thank you.” He gave Kain a small smile as he pushed off the couch to head into the kitchen. He remembered Marie’s comments about Travis making cereal the night before, and it hadn’t seemed to have left too much of a mess. It shouldn’t be a problem for them to eat and clean up before Travis was needed for the show, and it should keep Kain content with the state of his kitchen.
Kain raised an eyebrow as the serpent walked away, then took the opportunity to cast his eye over the dancer’s aura with his back turned. He seemed calm enough now, without the warm flustered edge he’d had near the showers. Interesting.
He shrugged as he caught Nat’s eye. The woman raised an eyebrow at him in response and he sighed softly. At least she wasn’t likely to cause trouble. She smiled and turned her head back to Marie.
Kain continued through to the other hallway, padding softly down the long length towards the open style showers.