Chapter 11, part 2

In which many battles are lost

Kain frowned at the pair of them, his dark eyes unreadable. Her gaze fell down his body as he approached, her posture stiffening when she fixated on his hands.

No.” Her voice was soft, but clear.

Kain raised an elegant eyebrow, never breaking his stride. “It isn’t a question, hawklet.”

I’d like to see you try and make me, old man.”

She would have liked to think that the threat in her voice was what stopped him, but likely he had just intended to stop by the tub where he was. Her feathers bristled and she scowled anew.

Really? Because it looks to me that you’re in no condition to back that up – considering your earlier suicide attempt.” His voice was mild, and her scowl deepened at the amusement in his smile.

His gaze flicked from her to Naj and he held out a small glass of amber liquid. He didn’t bother to hold the other out to Nica yet, probably because he knew she’d dump it on principle alone.

It’s just a tincture, but the herbs will help you regain your energy faster.”

If you can keep it down.” Nica muttered bitterly. “Nothing that tastes so badly could possibly be meant for consumption.”

Kain rolled his eyes, giving Naj a smile as he addressed the serpent. “Don’t mind her, she’s only sore that they work.” He continued past a snort from Nica. “She has a vendetta against anything good for her.”

Naj was certain nothing in that glass could taste as awful as Nica’s bristling agitation did. His aura was still taunt and raw from feeding the storm, and her aggression raced through it like wind whipping through a sharp grass. He recoiled, wincing against the sensation. Kain’s smile did little to help– he was already set in a firm position against Nica’s argument. Her aura crackled and hissed against Kain’s, and it stood solid and unmoving against the cutting wind. Naj downed his small glass without a word, hoping the restorative worked quickly, so he could get a buffer up.

Nica’s jaw clenched, which only made her head throb, which only made her angrier.

Kain frowned at her, taking the empty glass back from Naj. He held the other to her and she shook her head. It was a point of pride and she knew it was ridiculous, but she was angry with herself and Kain was an easy target.

With a controlled sigh, he extended the drink further. “It will make you feel better and the sooner you give in, the sooner you’re not bombarding the serpent with your agitation.”

Surprise took the edge from her anger and she glanced at Naj. Her eyes closed when she saw him wincing. She took a breath, then again, and when she thought she could look at Kain without wanting to hit him, she held out a hand for the damned drink.

It wasn’t the alcohol that tasted so awful, but some combination of herbs left a bitter, sour coat on her tongue. She gagged slightly, making a face when she gave the glass back.

Damn the cat all to hell, she didn’t know what he put in those damned things, but her headache was already lessening.

Better?” The rumble of his voice mingled with the sound of water as his fingers dipped to check the temperature.

She started to reply, but his dark eyes cut to Naj questioningly and she wrinkled her nose. She settled back against the tub, her tiredness returning now that her annoyance was fading.

Yes, thank you.” Naj said for them, when it became clear Nica wasn’t going to. His tone was sharper than he meant it to be, but in a petulant way, Naj thought she sort of deserved it for acting so childishly. Yes, the tincture burned, but even that helped chase away the chill. His aura was still paper-thin though. Naj wanted to climb inside the big man’s aura and hide, but somehow, he didn’t think they were quite to such familiar terms. Still, Naj felt soothed by Kain’s very presence, and he was glad when it seemed their eijye was going to stay a moment, even if it was just to fuss at them.

You’re welcome.” Kain’s voice was pleasantly warm again. Nica rolled her eyes at the large man, ignoring his growing smile.

Her gaze flicked to his hand in the water, then narrowed. She moved her foot experimentally, frowning when it swirled through a particularly warm spot.

Are you warming the water?” She hadn’t realized he could do that and his pleasantly blank expression told her that he somehow was.

Nica frowned. He must be worried if he wasn’t being as careful as usual to hide his skills. He was usually more subtle than this. Usually because if he wasn’t she started asking questions he didn’t want to answer.

Naj’s expression was somewhere between pained and eternally grateful. “I’m sorry I can’t manage it myself.” He tried to smile up at Kain, but it felt like more of a grimace. He was such a careless idiot.

Her gaze flicked to Naj, surprised. Was she the only one that couldn’t summon heat in the room? Clearly. She frowned, but Kain spoke before she could.

It’s fine. You’ve already done enough.” There were layers to that and Nica thought to poke at Kain’s mind to find out what he was thinking, but she doubted she had the energy or that he would share.

Dark eyes turned to hers expectantly. “Why were you dancing something like that in the first place? I didn’t realize that was something I should have to worry about.”

Nica shifted, uncomfortable with the sudden feeling that she’d done something wrong. Learning new skills was not the problem here. She wanted to cross her arms over her chest, but didn’t want to dislodge Naj.

Ariella’s been teaching me the new technique for a few weeks now.”

Disappointment in himself finally won out over the smile he’d been forcing.

I’m to blame,” he said, dropping his eyes to the rippling water. “I was showing off skill this morning I have no business tossing about with such carelessness. I should have been more careful to learn Nica’s background before demonstrating a potentially dangerous technique.”

Kain turned an eloquent eyebrow on the serpent. “Showing off? Fate forbid there be two of you.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. This was not what he had wanted. A serpent to distract Nica, yes. A serpent capable of calling great magics and encouraging the hawk to unleash her own potential was not.

It isn’t-”

A raised, dripping finger stymied Nica’s defense of the new dancer. “I know, I know. I can already see how this little fiasco played out. At least one of you is trained enough to have stoppered it before it got completely out of hand.”

He sighed, but there was a hint of a smile peeking out as he dipped his hand back into the water to raise the temperature a few more degrees. “I just ask that I’m given warning next time you two decide to show off.”

Naj’s voice was grave, and he couldn’t bring himself to raise his eyes. His reticent “Yes, eijye,” was cut short, and he stumbled to turn it into a soft, “It won’t happen again.”

It chafed at Nica that Kain was reprimanding the pair of them. He always shunned the second in command title until it was convenient to him. As if sensing her thoughts – or as if he were actively reading them, he turned to her.

I’m not going to bother asking you to behave yourself – you’ll get in trouble just to spite me.” His lips quirked and he glanced at Naj as if he’d just found an amusing joke. “But perhaps, at least with a serpent in the nest, I won’t be alone in keeping an eye on you before you get too far into trouble.”

Color rose in Nica’s cheeks at the implication she needed a babysitter. Much less that he was insinuating that their newest dancer take the job. She was supposed to be guiding him, not the other way around!

But he had saved her and that alone kept her from yelling back at Kain.

Kain was… joking with him?

The good natured banter they’d shared in the il’soum came back to him, but they had been relaxing then, getting to know one another. But now that Naj was abasing himself to show his contrite spirit-

Oh. Kain was teasing him, as he’d teased him then. Kain didn’t want Naj to bow and scrape and beg forgiveness. Kain wanted help. His help. In his informal capacity as second-in-command. The position existed just as much to give the nest leader some one to look to as it did to help the rest of the nest. What was going on between these two? He couldn’t seem to wrap his head around much of anything. He felt loose and disconnected from himself, and it was nearly impossible to think.

Naj looked to the grinning cat, to the silently sulking hawk, then back to the cat. Did he just wink at him? Naj’s head swam, and the room seemed to spin, now uncomfortably warm.

I… think I’ve had enough.”

He made a motion as if to stand, but he could feel his knees buckling already, even before he’d called on them to hold him up.

Both Nica and Kain shifted to offer support to Naj and after exchanging a look, Nica let go of Naj so Kain could take his arms and help him stand.

Nica made a motion to follow, but stopped when her head swam. The dull ache was fading, but the conversation had given her something to focus on other than her weariness.

I think, perhaps we should rest.” She said, her breath coming a little short as she rested against the side of the tub.

Kain nodded, “If you’ll rest, I’ll work on a stew for dinner. That way you can eat something with some substance when you wake. You’ll be ravenous.”

Naj just stood there, shivering as his damp clothes stuck to him, even as he felt the blood in his face glowing like a hot star. He needed to lie back down, but he needed not to be in cold, wet things, but his hands trembled when he lifted them, and everything clung to him like a second skin, and he nearly threw his head back and simply wailed, but settled for a hiccup of a whimper as he tore a button rather than undoing it.

Kain stared at the serpent in his arms for a moment, then stifled the urge to reach out and offer a mental calm like a blanket. It was simply exhaustion and once the fellow slept it would be better, but right now… Right now, Kain would do well to remember he had once been Dai. Kain wouldn’t risk exposing more of his hand than necessary.

From the tub, Nica manage to gain the edge of the tub, one hand reaching out to stroke Naj’s calf. “I agree, the wet clothes are unpleasant.”

Kain took the serpent’s hand, keeping him from working the next button. “Here. I can throw the clothes in the laundry while you two sleep.”

Hot tears traced his face as his eija held him and his eijye did for him what he could not. He was home. He was safe and cared for, and it only served to underscore his inabilities. He had never been able to take care of himself, relying on the Dai for everything, then falling into a useless sleep when they had been taken away. Who was he? What was he good for, but poisoning the world with his bastardized magics? Why were these strangers taking care of him, when the first things he’d done had been to raid their memories with an out of control s’Era’ramn, then show their leader how to half-kill herself? They should turn him out now, before he had the chance to do any more damage.

But… they weren’t. As Kain peeled away the ruined crimson silk, Nica had begun singing. Softly, yes, but the intent to calm and embrace was clear. He could barely hear the words around the raw emotion sounding in her gentle voice. Even as he cursed himself, he felt love and belonging wrap around him, through him, until he could not think of himself as anything but beloved part of the nest. He stared at her, eyes full of wonder, then promptly slid from the waking world.

Kain’s arms caught the falling serpent and Nica was grateful. Comforting him with touch and voice was about all she could muster. She sighed, patting Kain’s arm and using his stability to climb out of the tub herself.

One hand picked at her sodden sari and she looked up when Kain made a soft sound of amusement. She glanced up and he smiled, adjusting his hold on the serpent in his arms. “Think you can manage the knots on your own?”

She wrinkled her nose, but it was a valid question. It would be easier to walk without the wet fabric draped around her.

In the end, Kain had to help with those as well, though Nica drew the line at his offer to help dry her. At least he seemed to be in a better mood, a light amusement coloring his actions as he escorted her to her room while he carried Naj.

He laid the serpent down, but Nica lowered herself into the nest and curled around Naj before Kain could offer any further help. It wasn’t that she didn’t appreciate it, however grudgingly. She just preferred to do things for herself.

When he turned to go, though, she did swallow her pride long enough to manage a soft, “Thank you.”

The large man stopped at the tapestry, turning to give her a smile. “Of course.”

Then he was gone and she gave in to the call of sleep.

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