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