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.