In which everyone showers
Naj followed Travis down the hall, opposite the one he’d been down the night before. The hallway ended in an entry way much the same as the one on other hall, a small tiled anteroom with storage cubbies and benches, open to short hallways on either side and into a larger space in the center. But instead of the large soaking tubs Nat had shown him, this central space seemed almost more like the kitchen. The back wall held a row of shiny white boxes, rumbling like the “dish washer” Marie had shown him. He couldn’t see much else from the anteroom, but the scent of spices and herbs drifted out, and Naj found himself drawn toward it.
He froze in the doorway, arrested by the sight of a familiar smooth muscled back. Kain was completely nude, save for the barest covering he’d worn during his dance number. The black fabric blended in nearly perfectly with his skin, and the long, long line of his body was elegant perfection. He stood at a stove top, both arms working to stir a pot clearly full of something thick and sticky. The sight of it left Naj in the grip of recent memories. Those same powerful arms, holding the long line of his body over the gear block as he’d danced, or even better, those arms wrapped around Naj’s shoulders in the il’soum…
Naj flushed and scurried to catch up with Travis, who hadn’t gone far. He was perched on a bench in the right hand hallway, working off his shoes. “You interested in the laundry room? Or, as I like to call it, Kain’s mad scientist lab.”
“No-no no no, that’s quite alright. Let’s just shower, as you said.”
Yup, the little dude was definitely jumpy. Then again, Kain could be scary when he wanted to. Especially if he accidentally left a mess in the kitchen. Travis felt late night snack raids should be exempt from punishment—munchies were munchies—but that was a battle he knew he couldn’t win.
“Alright, come on then. Pick a cubbie to leave your stuff in—no one cares which one.”
He pushed his shoes into one of the top ones, leaving the lower shelves for the short dancers. Ugh, raising his arms had been a mistake. He had to be funky if he even he noticed.
In the laundry room that also doubled as his work space, Kain paused, herbs in hand. Eyes and thoughts that had been intent on him hurried away.
He shook his head and chuckled, recognizing the serpent’s aura as it turned away. He returned to crushing the dried flower heads between his fingers.
The serpent seemed to be doing well – the gardens had done much to settle him in his own skin, though Kain had yet to decipher his reaction to Nica’s little story time. Practice had been especially interesting to watch as Naj had relaxed in the natural ebb and flow of the nest.
Though his blossoming reaction to Kain was turning into something of interest itself. He chuckled again and let his thoughts muse that over as he mixed the herbs into the vat of soap.
Travis sniffed as he snagged two towels from the shelf full of them and set them on the bench. Whew, yeah, he definitely needed a shower. How’d he work up such a sweat just from working the lighting?
As he pulled the shirt over his head, he realized it was the same one he’d worn out with Chris last night. Huh, alright, yeah, that’d do it.
He tossed his shirt at the bin by the laundry room door, grinning when he made the shot.
Naj looked toward the basket, then looked back, confused. “Dirty laundry basket. If you’re the one to fill it up, you wash it.” After a better look at the basket, he frowned. “Which will probably make it our turn, if no one’s started a load while we’re in the shower.” He shrugged and moved onto his belt.
All of this went over Naj’s head, but he got the idea to undress here before moving to the showers beyond. He kept his eyes down—his brief glimpse of Travis’s bare chest hadn’t done much for the heat still resting his face after spying on Kain. His cheeks burned, he stomach dancing in a mad but pleasant fluster. It was foolish to be embarrassed—there was nothing wrong with admiring the lovely body of a dancer openly showing it—but there was something …fun about the feeling. It was difficult to feel shyness in such an open culture, and the novelty of it made it thrilling.
He jumped when Travis touched his arm, clearly trying to get his attention.
“You alright there, dude? You look like you checked out on me?”
“What? Oh, yes, I’m fine! Thank you, I’m fine. Showers?”
Naj rushed from the room into the shower area, knowing his blush must be burning on his face. He really should have seen this coming. The serpents and raptors he’d spent so long with were both lean of frame as a general rule. Big cats were often bulkier—Kain being no exception–but nothing carried muscle quite like a wolf. Travis carried his fair share of muscle. Naj didn’t know if he also shared the same comfort of casual admiration as most dancers did, though he obviously hadn’t minded disrobing. Still, with thoughts of Kain fresh on his mind, the nearness and lovely nakedness of Travis were more than he could deal with politely. So he fled.
This shower room differed from the opposite hall, offering privacy for each shower with curtains. Naj quickly pulled one closed and ducked behind it, grinning like a mad fool. He was being ridiculous, and that was its own kind of fun. Panting, he leaned back against the cool tile, grateful that wolves had no particular skill with reading emotion.
Fates preserve us, he’s flirting.
Seth hovered, Naj’s intense emotions making it impossible to look away. The spikes of fear and panic were exactly the sort of thing Seth looked for, but in this situation, “protecting” Naj was ridiculous. Naj was enjoying tormenting himself, blissfully unaware of how difficult he was making things for Seth. Well of course he was. That was the point, wasn’t it? The more Naj relaxed, the less Seth would be needed. It was hard to ignore how alarming these emotions were, but it was hardly surprising that lust and passion were the first feelings to take root in a half-numb serpent. These were Li’Daea’s gifts– dancing, volatile tempers, and lust. All reactions of the body were a serpent’s domain.
Seth turned away from the giddy serpent, leaving him to his fun.
Travis blinked when there suddenly wasn’t anyone in front of him. The little guy certainly moved fast. As he added his pants to the pile of dirty clothes, a thought occurred to him – had Naj undressed?
Travis didn’t care, but he knew he usually forgot important details like that. He grabbed both towels off the bench and headed around the corner to the showers. As he opened the privacy curtain and pushed it flush to the wall, he chuckled. “I usually leave my clothes in the hallway, but if you’re shy then the stalls are the way to go.”
“What- oh yes!”
His clothing, how foolish. He really was taking this entirely too far. Granted, the heat in his cheeks felt good, but really. He ought to focus on acclimating to the nest, and finding his useful role within it. Flirting could wait- if that even was his intention. It had been so long since he’d had the luxury of friendship, he was beginning to wonder if he’d forgotten how.
One step at a time. A bath, a meal, and if he still hadn’t gained his wits by then, some quiet meditation. Beyond that– well, one step at a time, as he’d said.
And the first step in this case was removing his clothing. He took several slow breaths as he undid his shirt and pants, folding them carefully before setting them back out of his stall onto the floor. If they did the wash as Travis had said, he’d ask after clean clothing then. Otherwise, his old outfit would do. Serpents didn’t sweat anywhere near as much as the furred races.
“I’m sorry, I seem to keep flying off the handle toda–”
Travis was standing just on the other side of Naj’s curtain, mercifully facing the other way. Though not as tall as Kain, from Naj’s crouched position, Travis’s legs seemed to stretch up forever before reaching the firm swell of his–
When Naj stopped talking, Travis glanced over his shoulder. Of course, he couldn’t see anything past Naj’s pulled curtain. Weird. He thought serpent-kin were supposed to be all body-worshipy or whatever.
“You still ok?”
“Oh, yes! Just fine!”
His sing-song tone was just as suspicious as speaking too quickly- what on earth was the matter with him? Normally, he was so much more together than this. Where was the helpful voice telling him to be silent when he needed it?
Naj willed himself to walk and speak evenly as he returned to his chosen stall.
“I really am not myself today. Too much excitement.”
He fiddled with the knob, hoping the water would halt further questioning. The sudden heat made him yelp, but turning the knob the other way reduced the water to nearly nothing. Such extremes! With yet another steadying breath, he turned the dial to what he thought was the middle setting, then yelped again as Travis’s helpful face appeared over the divider.
“Sorry, wasn’t trying to scare you.”
This new guy was really, really weird. Travis waited until Naj recovered from his mini-heart attack, then nodded at the knob.
“Left’ll give you hot water, right is cold – I find if you point the little arrow just a bit to the left of the middle, it’s pretty good.”
He lowered himself back to his own side, content that he’d been helpful. Travis had definitely needed Chris’s help to figure out the showers when they’d been updated a few years ago. He turned on his own water with a grin.
“Let me know when you want the soap. I figured we could share for now, and talk to Kain about getting you some of your own later.” He pitched his voice so Naj would hear him over the sound of the water.
Naj slumped against the far divider, watching Travis’s feet, now firmly back on the ground. His little feat of strength was nothing the average shifter couldn’t do, but most weren’t so blatant about it. Still, Travis exuded nothing but good will, and it was rude of Naj to stay so keyed up. Travis was obviously doing his best to accommodate him, so naturally, the only polite thing to do was relax. He shifted the dial slightly to the left, as Travis had suggested, then a little bit more, luxuriating in the heat. He let out a long sigh, tension melting from his frame as the breath left his body.
Travis lathered himself, making little noises that almost made a song if he had more sense of rhythm or tone. He turned the heat up to rinse, then did the same for his hair. He liked the smell, it wasn’t overwhelming to his wolf senses, but had enough amber to be vaguely spicy.
As he ran his fingers through his hair, he wondered when Chris was going to come back. He didn’t have very long until the show started and he’d probably want a shower himself. The jackal didn’t usually cut it so close when he was out for the night. Besides, he’d want to meet the new guy himself. Maybe Travis should have texted him when he’d found out they had a new dancer… Eh, not worth worrying over.
He pulled himself out of his thoughts when Naj said something and he rinsed his hair before lifting himself back up to hold out the bottle.
It was no less alarming this time than when it had been unexpected. Perhaps it was because Naj had made such special note of Kain’s arms before, but something about watching Travis’s shoulders work as he held himself up made Naj’s belly turn flips. He had to try three times before his stammering turned into real words.
“You’re finished, yes? I don’t want to interrupt you…”
“Oh yeah, I already washed up. All yours.” He grinned and dropped back to the ground. He liked the guy, though he seemed easily startled. But then, so was Lena.
“You can use it on hair and skin – Kain stopped making mine separate when I kept forgetting which was which anyway.” He laughed, remembering the big guy’s exasperation when he’d kept asking him which bottle was supposed to be which. Wasn’t Travis’s fault the labels kept washing off.
Naj already had a good lather in his hair before Travis had explained. He had simply started from the top with the intent to work his way down. But really, when was the last time his hair had had a proper wash? Or a good oil treatment, for that matter? Somehow, the distant past was easier to remember than closer yesterdays. No matter– he would simply ask Kain when they went for soap. Their hair would be of a similar texture, he was sure.
The thought of approaching Kain again made him feel slightly giddy, or maybe he’d spent more than enough time in the heat and steam. He’d best hurry up– especially if Travis was already finished bathing. Wouldn’t do to keep his newest friend waiting.
“Thank you again for showing me the baths, and lending me your soap. Your kindness is greatly appreciated. I promise I won’t be much longer.”
Travis blinked at the divider, then shrugged and shut off his own water. “Hey, no sweat. Glad to help out.”
He grabbed his towel and threw it over his head to scrub his head briefly, then toweled off. When Naj shut off his water and reappeared, Travis grinned at him, tossing his used towel over one shoulder and throwing the dry one to Naj. “’Sides, what are nestmates for?”
Naj’s answer smile was easy and genuine. “Indeed.” After drying himself, he wiped down the borrowed bottle and handed it to Travis with a nod of thanks. “With any luck, I’ll be able to return the favor in some way soon.”
Travis nodded. “That seems to be how it works.” He replaced his soap and waited as Naj gathered an armful of his clothes. He started out of the shower, dropping the dirty towel in the basket for it. The empty basket.
“Score! Someone else started the laundry!” He did a little victory dance on his way out the door. “I’m going to stop by my room to grab some clean clothes since it’s right next door – you need anything?”
He had been distracted by the naked dancing wolf, but the mention of clean clothes reminded Naj that those he was clutching to his chest were not.
Naj eyed Travis again, this time with the intent to size him up instead of to oggle. There was no way anything that fit the finely muscled wolf would do more than fall off Naj’s more slender frame. Ah well. He set his carefully folded pants on the bench and shook the shirt back out. A puff of ceder and musk was all that greeted him, the stale smell of serpent. These would do for now.
“You go on ahead– I’ll meet you in the kitchen?”
“Sure! See you in a few then.” Travis continued on to his room to change.
The pleasant view was momentarily distracting, but then, it wasn’t as if Naj had much else to do. Dress, walk down the hall, find Travis again. Assuming someone else didn’t decide it was their turn to abscond with the new dancer. Honestly, now that he thought about it, it was rather lucky they hadn’t all mobbed him at once. As they were likely to do once he was back out into the larger common area.
Naj hurried into his clothes, focusing on one small task at a time, before the fear of facing a large crowd of near strangers could send him running back into the showers to hide.