In which things are tried on for fit.
Naj watched her feathers flex, eyes going soft in wonder. Then he caught himself staring and ducked his head.
“They are magnificent,” he said, nodding his head to her wings. “Forgive me if I’m distracted from time to time. I’ve never seen coloring quite like yours.”
Nica paused in her movement, eyes going to her wing nearest him.
Serpents were often divided in their responses to her feathers. While she was raised as a serpent, and behaved like one, they were the one reminder that she wasn’t. Her family had never minded, and had treated her feathers as beautiful as scales, but not all serpents felt that way. Before Asylum, she’d been turned away from several nests just for bearing wings. The prejudice was common enough that few serpents ever sought out her nest, even now.
Centuries after the war between their people, and neither really trusted the either. It was petty and depressing, making her miss her family all the more.
She extended her wing towards him, low so that the joint was no higher than his shoulder, the long primaries spread back along the floor. There was a small twinge of shyness that accompanied the motion. While some serpents would overlook her wings, it was rare any praised them. “Thank you.” Her voice was quiet, but pleased.
He marveled at their dexterity, and the beautiful patterns revealed when she stretched them this way or that. “I’ve never known anyone with red in their wings,” he said softly, eyes drinking her in. Their posture seemed somehow demure, and he wondered at the softness in her aura until he recognized it as shyness.
“Oh! I’m sorry—this is awfully intimate of me, I shouldn’t have assumed–”
He pulled himself back, settling back over his own crossed legs and stretching his spine up straight. “Sh-shall we begin our meditation?”
It was silly and vain of her, but it was nice to have someone admire her wings and she was a little dismayed when he drew away again.
He was such an odd serpent, unlike anyone else she’d met. Not shy of her wings, but shy to be too intimate.
“I didn’t mind.” Nica smiled, but straightened her own posture, tucking her wings against her back. “I’m ready.”
He flushed slightly at her smile, and it carried with him into their next lesson.
“You recall our starting position?” he asked, hands folded neutrally in his lap.
“Mm…” She hummed, shifting position as she closed her eyes. At her back, her wings flexed as she thought, feathers ruffling and resettling with her movements.
Her hands formed cups, one palm up and the other palm down. “This one or…” She shifted, both cupping upward and crossing at the thumbs, “this one?”
Her eyes opened as she looked for his answer.
He mirrored her current position, eyes alight. “Either is correct, depending on your intention.” His smile quirked into a grin. “I can simply tell you, rather than play further guessing games. I just wanted to see what you remembered.”
Nica raised an eyebrow, her smile warming. “I don’t know that I’m very good at guessing games.”
“Well, you did remember the starting postures alright. The first, Are proper, is more an invocation, a pause to reflect and balance before beginning. This, while it does contain Are on a smaller scale, is more useful for manipulations.”
He twitched his cross thumbs at her in a reminder.
“We need to open our channels so that energy from without has easier access to our stores within.”
He closed the fingers on his left hand, shutting down the forces of slowing and stillness. Then he touched all of his right hand fingers to his right thumb.
“Unless you want to give the energy a specific element, any of your dominant hands will do for accessing Li. Feel anything?”
She eyed his fingers, noticing that he was using all rather than a specific one. Nica thought about it, then followed his motion. There was that odd pulling sensation again.
“Yes.” Her voice was soft, but not quite breathy.
Naj frowned. He felt nothing. Perhaps his power deficit was too great. However, if Nica could balance herself, he would be satisfied. He still wasn’t certain he even wanted to return to his own unnatural balance.
“Feel the power move through you, listen for places where it snags and eddies. Those are places where your aura stores energy, and they need to be refilled. Simply focus on them, for now. The attention should be enough to direction for your purposes.”
“Mm…” She frowned slightly at his words. She could feel movement, but it was so slight it was hard to read. Finally, she shook her head, saying so. “I can feel it, but barely.”
“Just focus,” he encouraged. “The more you focus on it, the stronger the feeling should become.”
He wished he could see auras like some, but that was not among his gifts. He couldn’t help her anyways, but it would be nice to know that his student was making progress.
She hummed and closed her eyes again. Focus on it. Ariella always said patience was her worst trait. Nica took a breath, then another, until each breath sank deeper into her core. She felt the edge of her aura, washing gently against Naj’s.
The movement traveled inward and she followed it, feeling where her aura swirled over and into her own skin. As she focused on it and nothing else, she could feel an emptiness inside, as if she were a quilt made of empty pockets. It was a disturbing feeling, but she tried not to shy away from it.
Instead, she carefully investigated each one, slowly realizing her energy was falling into them, but not necessarily leaving again. They seemed to be situated over each of her chakras and she hummed again curiously.
As she pulled her attention back out of them, she realized her aura was sliding back towards her, drawing inward though she hadn’t called it back.
Nica broke the connection as she opened her eyes, frowning slightly. “I can feel where it’s collecting, but it also feels like my aura is falling into it. Is that typical?”
He nodded, glad to know things were progressing as they should. “In avians, yes. You are undoubtedly serpent in heart, but as you said, your magic draws on a hawk.”
“It’s slightly disturbing to feel my aura recede unintentionally.” Nica shifted her wings behind her uncomfortably. At least she knew it was typical for an avian – though that made her wonder how he knew. She’d forgotten for a moment that a serpent might not know. He seemed rather familiar with avians though, and she pushed the through aside for another time.
“I don’t doubt it.”
He pushed his own aura towards her until they were brushing again, letting his sympathy and support shine through it.
“Embrace it—this is something your energy does naturally, just not quite to this extent or as quickly. But your body will know what to do. Trust it.”
Nica took another breath and nodded. She tried to focus on it without closing her eyes this time and found that now that she knew what she was looking for, it was easier to feel. Her aura was still sliding into her, but to a lesser extent.
“It seems to be slowing.”
“How are you feeling, then? Better?”
He was so lost. Naj had no business being a teacher, and he knew it. Without a dance or a deep meditative state, he couldn’t connect to her aura fully enough to see its state for himself. He could read the surface coloring, easily, but it’s deeper health still eluded him. And he doubted Nica’s knew what to look for, if such manipulations were as new to her as they seemed.
“A little?” She broke the connection to rub her hands over her arms. “I’m not quite as tired, but I’m actually a little chilled, which is odd, for me.”
Naj redoubled his efforts to pull energy into his own reserves, and found the room barren.
“Perhaps you’ve simply collected all this space has to offer….”
He shrugged, giving up on his own mediation posture. “At least you know the art of it now?”
“True…” Nica wrapped her wings around her shoulders, the cold making her aware of her lack of clothing. Many shifters cultures didn’t consider nudity to be taboo or something to be hidden. Serpents were one of those, often considered lascivious by other shifter races. Nica often found the rumors to be greatly exaggerated, but it was true that serpents considered clothing to be more decorative. Then again, they also were typically found in temperatures that facilitated that idea. The downstairs was kept in the low to mid eighties for that reason.
She didn’t mind being nude currently, but it was highly odd for her to have a chill at all. It seemed sharper for it somehow. Avians ran naturally hotter than any other shifter and she wondered how the shift in her aura had made a difference.
Her posture worried him. She looked so guarded with her wings wrapped tight—did she have some concern she wasn’t sharing? Was it embarrassment? With her aura pulling itself in so close, he couldn’t read it. He reached out a companionable hand to pat her thigh. She was cool to his touch.
His touch. The passionate hawk woman was cooler than a serpent running on empty. This was not good. What to do?
“You’re uh…” He rubbed her leg, flicking his gaze to it. “I think you’re more than a bit chilled.”
Nica shivered, feathers ruffling. Her hand covered his, squeezing it. She tried to smile in reassurance, but it ended in a grimace. “I’m not sure why, though.”
It had to be the energy empty room, he was sure of it. In times like this, he’d have called on his nestmates for help–
And why shouldn’t he? They were in a perfectly good nest—better, probably, than the fallen serpents he’d been thinking of. And they all belonged to Nica. If anyone could help her regain what was lost…
“I think it might be best if we go upstairs. There’s just not enough power lingering down here—for either of us.”
Her eyebrows rose as she met his gaze. Lingering power? She had assumed the meditation was meant to balance her own energies, but this was beginning to sound more like when Dev fed. It made sense, in its own way…
Nica’s eyes flicked to the ceiling, looking past the colored tapestries. “We’re probably halfway into the first show right now.”
He nodded, pushing to his feet. “Should be fairly leveled out by now then. It’ll be good intermediate practice.” He held a hand out to her, doing his best to smile despite his worry.
Nica took his hand, standing slowly. “Intermediate practice?”
She made it a question as she moved towards her closet. “I suppose we should get dressed then.”
“Well yes–wait what?” His mind couldn’t keep up with the abrupt shift. Once it did grind into gear, however, another thought was quick on its heels.
“I, uh, I’ll need some assistance with that. Kain is washing everything I own…”
The crimson button up and dark slacks were literally his only possessions. He’d lost his shoes at some prior point he couldn’t recall.
She smiled, hand on the doorway. “I’m sure we can find something that will fit you.”
Gesturing for him to follow her, she moved further into the closet. Her mind began to turn as she did so though. She had quite a variety of clothing, between dressing for various occasions as well as costuming. Nica wasn’t worried about finding something that Naj could wear, though the fitting might be a bit off.
She was, however, caught on his words about Kain washing everything he owned. She needed to schedule an appointment with Liza for him, so the tailor could get started on his own wardrobe. She handled the nest’s costumes, and quite a bit of their personal clothing as well.
Nica ran a hand over some shirts hanging, then opened a dresser that held pants. “Feel free to look around, see if anything sparks your interest.” She pulled out a pair of capris that fell open at the knee. “It might not all fit, but I’m sure we can find something.”
“I’ll contact Liza in the morning, she tailors most of the clothing for the nest – that way you can have something properly fitting in a style you like.”
He eyed the elastic fabric she pulled on, noting how it molded to her curves, but it didn’t seem stiff enough to offer any support. Pleasant on her, probably less attractive on his attributes. He’d have to steer away from anything that tailors, given their differences in build. He sorted through the drawer while she talked, pleased to hear that tailoring at least was still in style. He might have lost most of her serpent temperament, but he was still classically “snake-hipped”, and so required a slimmer fit than most.
“Thank you. I quite appreciate that.”
He pulled out a bundle of rust-red fabric and suede laces. If these were what he thought they were…
A soft smile filled his face as he shook them out. The fabric billowed out from the waist band, brought together at the hips and ankles by laces. They were a traditional serpent cut, easily transitioned from full pants to a shorter fit more suited to flame and sword dances. He imagined the rich red color, which faded to a more orangey clay at the hems, would look stunning against Nica’s plumage. The red was wrong for his own scales, but he wouldn’t be shifted upstairs anyways. Naj held them out for Nica’s approval, hoping she wouldn’t mind his selection.
Nica smiled as she took in the pants he was holding up. “Please do, I was hoping I’d have something that caught your eye.”
She debated wearing something a little more decorative, but with her chill and the tinge of weariness… Comfort was her preference tonight. She picked up a rich green halter, slipping her wings away before putting it on. A black silk overshirt followed, draping over her to tie loosely in the front. It accented her curves with the way it fell, even as it covered her, leaving only a few glimpses of the emerald underneath. The cloth didn’t chase away the chill entirely, but it did help.
His smile was quiet, but pure. As he slid the breathy cotton fabric up over his hips, a content sigh eased from him. They felt like home. The simple act of lacing first one side then the next made his very skin fit more snuggly around him. The slit legs flapped open around his calves, waiting to be laced similarly.
“Up or down?” He asked, eyes twinkling.
“Mm…” She wrapped her arms around herself with a smile. The pleasure in his aura was nice, easing some of the tension out of her shoulders. “I think either would look good on you. I typically prefer them down.”
“As did I.”
Naj went down on one knee, pulling gently at either end of the lacing to make sure they were even. Then he gave a little half-tug more on the right, to account for the length that would be eaten up by the knot. He hadn’t taken such care with the top laces—had he ever laced them up for himself? This action felt habitual, ingrained by centuries of practice. But he hadn’t given his other laces a second thought.
His brow furrowed as he worked at the laces, surprised when no memory came with the action. It felt like there should have been one.
Nica frowned when he did, his previous happiness fading. She moved towards him, one hand brushing his shoulder in an offer of comfort that didn’t interfere with his lacing. She didn’t question his doubt, simply replying, “It is a popular way to wear them.
He nodded, twisting the expert knot without hesitation. He remembered it, even if he didn’t remember remembering it. He moved to the other ankle, playing and adjusting again, but lengthening the left cord this time.
“How are my hips?” he asked absently. “Even?”
“They look even from here.” She rubbed at one arm as she studied his thin frame. “Though it’s hard to know for sure until you stand.”
Another twist and he stood with a snap, spreading his arms and giving a little turn. His grin was back when his gaze returned to his face—the small breeze behind his knees even that gentle motion had cause filled him with the joy of a thousand dances.
Nica chuckled at his showmanship, smiling as she took him in. “They look good on you.”
She made a small circuit around him. Her fingers touched the laces on his hip briefly, then she nodded. “And even.”
A small sound of pleasure slipped from him at her touch. It was smooth and cool, like a polished stone. Cool—oh yes. He needed to stop playing around get her upstairs. His gaze raked the rows of hanging shirts, and he felt his mind slip to the half-panicked indecision of choosing bowls.
He took a gulp of breath, then blew it out slowly. “Don’t suppose you have the matching top?”
A blip of panic brushed her and she leaned in to slide her hand along his waist. “I should…”
She hummed slightly, then reached past him, pulling a red top from a shelf. “Here it is.”
He was surprised to find the shift in Nica’s collection—she obviously favored backless styles. For obvious reasons, he thought with a smile, as he remembered the vibrant feathers shifting behind her. But she was a lover of serpent traditions, and the outfit seemed plucked straight from his memories.
The fading of the dyes followed up the armless shift, moving from rusty red to a deep crimson at the shoulders. The lacing pattern also continued, running up his ribs. They had clearly been cinched down at the waist, left to flare at the hips, but it wouldn’t take much work to adjust them. It would simply be difficult to do it himself.
He took the garment from her, then held it back out. “Could you, uh…” He chewed at his lip before finally asking. “I need help adjusting the side cinches please.”
“Of course.” She waited until he put the garment on,then worked to straighten the lacing until it suited his frame. As she pulled it around him, her fingers working without thought, she couldn’t help but notice again how thin he was.
It tickled. He did his best not to squirm or laugh, but the delicate brushes of fingers and lacing over his ribs were nearly unbearable. Still, he’d asked for help, and he wasn’t about to make this more difficult. But oh, did it tickle.
When she’d finished and stepped back, he caught sight of himself in the mirror on the back of the door. He was a shadow of his old self, entirely too thin and pale, but… He was, at least, a shadow of his old self. The simple, richly dyed cotton wrapped around him like a hot wind, blown out of a desert long dead and forgotten, stepping out of the sands time had already let slip by.
It underscored how far he’d fallen, but seeing himself standing there, he couldn’t ignore the small steps he’d already taken. He smiled, startled at how odd it looked on his face, then smiled again. It looked good on him. He should smile more often.
He turned back to Nica, eyes soft and shining. “a’parn’o.”
Her hand was touching his shoulder before she thought about it, a smile at his happiness on her lips. His emotion wrapped around her like an embrace and the need to touch him was too strong.
This. This is what a nest was about. The marriage of their joy, building and exalting into something more, wrapping them in a sense of good will that did much to soothe his raw aura. Which reminded him of why they were dressing in the place, He offered up his arm, smile still suffusing his face,
She slipped her arm in his gratefully. While she was feeling better, she was still tired. Part of her wanted nothing more than to curl up under heavy blankets and sleep for another eight hours. She knew though, if Naj was recommending going upstairs for the ambient energy, it would do her more good.
“Let’s.” Nica squeezed his arm, glad to see him relaxing. It made something within her also begin to relax.
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