Chapter 13, part 3

In which things get a bit out of hand.

As the last act ended, they stayed where they were sitting, letting the crowd empty out. She’d always enjoyed watching the crowd as they began to come down off the high of the performances. Some of the staggering was from alcohol, but the excitement was always genuine.

Whispering behind her grabbed her attention and she turned in time to hear someone say her name. There was a pair of gentlemen standing a few feet back, staring,t hen grinning when they saw her face them.

“I told you it was her!” The taller man said, elbowing his companion in excitement.

A smile automatically fit her lips and she raised expectant eyebrows. She was actually surprised no one had said anything prior to this, but then, she had been gone quite a while.

“It is Nica, isn’t it?” He asked when she didn’t say anything.

She nodded and his grin grew. “Knew it! I might not have recognized you, but I knew anyone dressed like that,” He gestured towards Naj, “Probably worked here and the only girl I knew that worked here with hair like yours was you.”

His friend’s amusement at his babbling was fading as he glanced at his watch. It was late for most people, the show having run into the late evening/early morning hours.

He knew his time was running out and the speed of his talking quickened. “You’re going to be on stage for Blue Moon, right?”

Nica barely had a chance to nod before he continued. “Alright! I’ve got some friends who’re real fans of yours, I’ll be sure to let them know!”

His friend drew him away and she heard something low about wings and drums. She frowned only a bit after them, not recognizing the gentleman. It would be silly to expect to recognize every customer, but Blue Moon nights required a special pass to get into the club. She’d thought she’d known everyone with one. At least she should have been able to pin down what sort of supe he was.

She shook her head, disoriented by the encounter. When she caught Naj’s eye, she smiled. “It was bound to happen sometime tonight.”

Naj wondered if his face was that obviously lost, or it she was just being polite. The conversation had gone so quickly, with so many comments going over his head—what was wrong with Nica’s hair? The feathers were long gone… He knew his clothes were more of a costume in this day and age, but he’d been so comfortable he’d forgotten he’d stand out, until someone commented on it. And while he remembered Blue Moon being mentioned, he’d forgotten exactly what that meant.

He didn’t know what to make of the whole exchange, so he stuck to familiar ground.

Are you feeling better?”

She took a deep breath, closing her eyes briefly as she felt the extent of her aura. Nica did feel better, fuller, warmer… She could lose the overshirt, but she’d wait until she was at least on the main floor.

I am feeling better.” She smiled, pleased to realize it.

Good!”

He’d stored up more than he himself needed, in case Nica hadn’t been able to draw enough on her own. He needn’t have worried. She was the heart of this nest, and it had gladly returned itself to her. He’d find a use for his back-up stores, or they’d dissipate naturally if no need presented itself. Part of it was surely powering his radiating joyful aura.

He sat in a happy bubble, watching the people around him, nearly drunk on the good feelings they exuded. There was a general flow towards the doors, and Naj found he couldn’t remember what came next. He looked to Nica, smile still spread over his face.

Now what?” he asked cheerfully.

Now we wait for the last few to trickle out so we can start shutting the club down.” She glanced towards the stairs, frowning slightly when she realized the third floor had been cordoned off. Were they that slow tonight?

Pulling her gaze away from the stairs, she looked around the now empty second floor. “We’ll head down and grab some rags, but the floor’s mostly clean up here – wipe tables and chairs, stack them, and a good sweep and mop should be all that’s needed.”

He settled back with a happy sigh, basking in the warmth that still radiated up from the ground floor. It was more intense this much closer than he was used to, but the familiarity helped soothe a knot between his shoulders he hadn’t noticed was there. He’d been on edge since they’d woken up, maybe even before then, but he was finally relaxing.

The time to answer Nica had passed. He’d forgotten that little social nuance, but she didn’t seem to mind. Nica seemed the sort of woman not to waste words, and if she had something to say, Naj was confident she would. So they watched the crowd dissipate in silence, Naj waiting for her cue that it was time to clean.

Nica watched Kain help a man who was especially unstable on his feet. She didn’t recognize him and the familiarity with which Kain treated him didn’t help. A regular? She barely remembered most of their regulars anymore. It was an unsettling feeling, but perhaps she just needed to get back into the swing of things for it all to come back.

The pair of them moved towards the door and she knew Kain would have a cab already waiting outside for him. They were down to the stragglers, the few who were settling up tabs and the friends who were so busy talking they didn’t realize they were last to go. She didn’t see anyone that was lingering unnecessarily though, and she was a little relieved to see that no one was skulking about in the hopes of seeing a dancer after the show. Those were typically the most unpleasant encounters.

She stood, stretching her back and letting her feathers mingle in her hair again. She glanced down to Naj. “Ready?”

Naj hopped up brightly with a nod, still buzzing with pent-up energy, though the high of audience had faded with their departure. He shivered when Nica pulled feathers, having spent enough time bathed in their mingling auras to feel the shift. It was prickly, but then soothing, like an itch finally scratched. It reminded Naj a bit of shedding, and his skin rippled in sympathetic goose flesh. He rubbed his arms to chase away the phantom chill then followed Nica down the stairs.

Dancers emerged from backstage as they came downstairs, most in casual clothes, some in various pieces of costume, all still bearing their smiles and bits of make-up.

Kain appeared at their side with some rags and spray bottles. Just as Nica was about to ask Naj if he wanted to work on the upstairs or downstairs, Ro jogged by calling out, “Got the stairs!”

She chuckled, glancing over at Naj. “You want to help up there or down here?”

Does it matter?” he asked, bewildered. He didn’t do well with choices, and he felt the first stirrings of panicked indecision.

Before either she or Kain could answer, there was a high pitched keening that instinctively made Nica brace herself. As it came closer, the sound resolved into a drawn out syllable of her name. A small tanned bundle bowled into her and her arms automatically wrapped to catch it.

With a breathless laugh, she shook her head. “Hi, Chris.”

His face buried itself in her cleavage and she sighed, jostling his weight so he’d know she was about to drop him. Catching himself lightly on his feet, he grinned up at her, arms wrapping around her again to squeeze hard enough that she nearly lost her breath again.

You can’t ever leave me again, Ni.” His voice was muffled against her skin and she ruffled his hair affectionately.

I missed you to-” “Missed your breasts too much.” Their words collided and with a snort she pushed the smaller man back a step.

He grinned up at her, green eyes twinkling with mischief.

A rag caught Chris by the face and his impossibly wide grin grew as Kain pointed to the bar. “Go clean something, jackal.”

With a cackle that echoed to the rafters, the small man was off, darting rather than moving. Nica couldn’t help but laugh. She knew that Chris was more mirth than serious, always looking for an easy laugh to keep moods around him high. He could be alarmingly somber though, if he thought no one was looking. She was glad he’d made the joke and shaking her head, she glanced back to Naj.

That was Chris, you’ll get used to him.”

He’d been half-frozen with panicky indecision. The shriek of a wail drove him completely into serpent stillness, he stood and watched the scene unfold from the shadows he’d drawn about himself. Nica’s comment brought him back to life, and he flushed guiltily at his flagrant show of power. How had he come so dependent on power? And how had he not noticed it? To draw the dark earthiness around him without a thought–

Earthiness? His brow furrowed, but it was true. He hadn’t drawn on the dark shadows of his usual habit—he’d hidden himself with the deep secretive powers of the earth. Which meant that somewhere, something had an abundance of it to spare. The gardens maybe? Nica had said the door was warded, but that didn’t mean it was completely cut off…

Naj visibly shook himself, bringing his attention back to Nica’s questioning look.

“I’m sorry?”

Kain was glad that Nica was so caught up in Chris and then Naj that he had time to school his features. He knew his expression had blanked when Naj had pulled against his aura. That was a new one.

He’d had nestmates that could feel his magic, but to have one usurp it without any warning… A little pocket of ice was forming in his chest. He was Dai. Tool or not, the training was obvious. And the disregard with which he’d used that training so far…

Nica was completely oblivious to it. Born a century after the Dai fell, there was no reason for her to recognize it. Perhaps he should have a word with Naj in private, before this became a resurgence of the Dai empire…

Surely he was simply being paranoid. The Dai had fallen, he’d watched them fall, had made sure they would not rise again to their previous heights.

Fate had a sense of humor to have brought a practicing Dai into his nest after all this time.

Kain smiled as Nica’s attention turned his way and he realized they’d been talking of cleaning chores. He handed off the rags and cleaner he was still holding and the pair of them began wiping down tables.

He watched them for a moment more, then turned away. Nat caught his eye, raising an elegant eyebrow. He shook his head. Her shrug was barely existent and Marie tugged at her arm, excitedly chattering about something.

Kain went to finish closing down the bar, keeping his thoughts to himself.

Naj threw himself into the business of cleaning, focusing on the circular motion of wiping. He scowled as he realized he’d been building a banishment with his pattern, and he wiped a harsh zig zag over the table’s surface. But even that was a traditional motion of negating, drawing on the character for zt, the sign for “no”. Working himself into a fine temper, he set to work on the next table, cleaning in it long, steady lines from top to bottom, focusing intently on not focusing at all.

Nica settled into a familiar rhythm. Two years hadn’t erased it and she fell into the task with a smile. It was meditative enough that she didn’t realize someone had started up some music. Nor did she realize she was singing along, voice rising and falling with her motion.

This was home. Life and warmth in the air around her, in her ears, heart, vibrating along her skin.

The song changed and she followed along, pleased when she realized she knew the songs. She grew more mindful of her voice, letting it fill her chest.

She moved from table to table, song to song, only looking up when she realized that several dancers were clustered near her, grinning like fools.

Nica raised an eyebrow, but couldn’t hide her own smile. As the music faded back down, she waved her rag at them. “Don’t you guys have work to do?”

It was Chris who laughed. Gesturing around, he drew her attention to all the clean tables and empty bar. “Done and done!”

She realized that the table she’d been working on was one of the last. With a shake of her head, she finished. “Alright, alright. Show’s over.”

There was a chorus of exaggerated groans and she rolled her eyes, catching Nat’s grin. Someone called out, “Jukebox time!”

Nat stepped in before Nica could protest. “Nica deserves more than one day to rest, come on guys, how about a movie instead?”

Chris jumped in, talking up some movie he’d picked up on the way home. The crowd dispersed with much laughter and debate. From what she understood, someone else had a different movie they wanted to watch.

She was glad for the distraction. While she enjoyed Jukebox time, a tradition of dancing and singing after a show to blow off some of the leftover energy… She didn’t quite feel up to it tonight.

Nica looked around at the thought, finding Naj to give him a smile. It widened when she saw Marie as well.

Naj gave Nica a little wave, with the arm Marie had left him. She was thoroughly wrapped around the other. She’d found him too far in thought, softly teasing him that he was taking the finish off the table he was working on. After Nica’s quiet intensity, Marie’s open simplicity was most welcome. She was surprisingly subdued from what he’d come to expect of her, but that was welcome too. Maybe, getting up early with him had taken its toll. He almost hoped so—he hated to have worn her out, but he would love to curl up with her and Nat again.

The dancers were moving with a purpose towards the downstairs, and Naj swept his free arm gracefully in their direction, turning to Marie with a smile. “Shall we?”

Marie snuggled against Naj’s arm, smiling when Nica looked their way. She looked relaxed, an easiness to it that reminded Marie everything was alright. It was that smile that had always told her as a child that everything would work out. No matter what happened, Nica would smile and everything would be alright, even if it took a little time.

Marie squeezed Naj’s arm, glad to feel him against her. The sensation combined with the safe feeling of having Nica back and she fought back a yawn. If she curled up with him for the movie, she was going to fall asleep.

Which sounded perfect right now.

She nodded at his invitation and they followed everyone else going downstairs. Nica and Kain trailed after them, talking softly among themselves.

Naj strained to hear the low voices behind him. But the pair was clearly used to having hushed conversations, because he couldn’t make out a thing. Not even a vague emotional impression.

He realized he’d been slowing when he felt Marie pulling away from him. She turned to him with the beginnings of a questioning look, which he dodged with a polite comment about enjoying her dance that evening. She beamed up at him, babbling happily about dancing with him again sometime, but Naj’s attention was as fixed on the pair behind him as he could manage without giving himself away.

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Chapter 13 part 2

In which waters are tested.

Though the beats were foreign and the moves a little strange, having seen the show this afternoon gave them a sense of familiarity that settled him. And there was the comfortable feeling of “Nest”, and belonging, and it felt good. Naj could practically feel sustenance he was drawing in with every breath. He was still low, but his spirit was more intact, and the good feelings did much to shore up his weakened aura. He wasn’t sure of the connection between heart and aura, but one seemed to express itself in the other, and both were as much a serpent’s lifeblood as ki’n.

The truly wonderful thing about the Dai’s modified hand gestures was how discreet they could be.

During a lull between acts, he turned to Nica and showed her how to clasp her hands together in a more casual form, indicating that as long as the Li’nar finger and thumb were touching, it didn’t matter what the other fingers were doing. Yes, it was easier if the other power circuits weren’t touching anything, but since they weren’t doing any complicated weavings, it wouldn’t be a problem.

“Just–” He hesitated, knowing that sometimes, it was the effort to prevent disaster that caused it. But Nica had found enough trouble on her own this afternoon, so Naj forged ahead. “Don’t attempt to do anything else with your energy until it’s had time to heal a bit. I’ll teach you anything you care to know, so please come to me if you want to experiment?”

Nica stiffened slightly at his words. Despite numerous arguments with Kain, she didn’t seek out trouble. It just usually came calling her name.

“I doubt I’ll want to experiment. I was only trying to practice a dance I thought I already knew earlier.”

After a moment’s hesitation, she added, “But thank you.” She had to remind herself that Naj wasn’t trying to hold it against her, he was merely offering.

He nodded meekly and sunk back into his seat, thoroughly rebuffed. He knew better than to question his eija, he just… He couldn’t bear the thought of bringing her any trouble.

She sighed inwardly as his aura withdrew, his unhappiness clear. She wasn’t used to a serpent that shrank back from a sharp word. But that didn’t give her an excuse.

Nica reached for his arm, squeezing it. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t snap at you because of arguments between myself and Kain.”

“Is everything alright?”

He sat back up, leaning over the table to keep his head lower than hers. Would he ever lose the habit of making himself small? Did it matter, if it helped her feel comfortable? He knew first hand how hard it was for raptors to admit to any weakness. He didn’t know if her being raised serpent changed that.

But that did give him other tools to help soothe her. He reached up and patted her hand on his arm reassuringly, sending a wave of warmth with it. It was weaker than he’d have liked, since neither of them had been meditating for long, but it was enough to be noticed.

His question caught her off guard, though she should have expected it. A new dancer would want to know if there were instability in the nest. Hardly a day back in her nest and she was already failing. Ariella’s voice percolated at the back of her head and she batted the useless words away. She was a strong leader. There was nothing wrong with the way she ran her nest.

Everything just seemed to be going wrong lately.

A surge of warmth grabbed her attention, her eyes falling to his hand. At every turn, Naj surprised her. It just put into perspective how badly she and Kain needed to have a serious talk. There was something more going on here than she knew.

It’s fine.” Her voice was quiet and she smiled in an attempt to reassure. But she couldn’t very well pretend she hadn’t said what she’d said. “This morning… Just gave an old argument the perfect excuse to surface, that’s all.”

He doesn’t like that you travel for your studies, does he?”

Naj was finally piecing it all together. The power dynamic had been puzzling to him, but no one had tried to hide anything. Which was part of what had puzzled him. But the way Kain skirted his title without shirking its duties, the Nica stood apart but was clearly a part of this nest…. And listening to Marie, the things she said and the things she didn’t say—Kain was in charge here, whether he liked it or not. And he didn’t like it.

Maybe that was why Fate had brought him here. With Naj in the nest, there was a wealth of knowledge at Nica’s fingertips. She had said she wouldn’t want to experiment, but her actions so far said otherwise. Naj was pleased with himself, content in finally having found a sense of usefulness, even under the push of distress from Nica at his words. She’d work herself out, and he’d make himself useful. All would be well.

Her eyebrows shot up at Naj’s conclusion, but thinking about it… He was right, in his own way. Kain was still mad at her for leaving, no matter what the reason was.

Something like that.” She sighed, leaning back in her chair as she watched the bustle of people going to the bar and returning with drinks. Her eyes were distant, not really seeing the people, but the flow itself. “And he is right, in his own obnoxious way. I should be with my nest.”

He nodded and continued his patting, content to let her tell herself what she needed to hear. “He knew what he was getting into, yes?”

Nica made a small sound that was just shy of a snort. “He was the one that talked me into it in the first place…”

Her thoughts drifted back and she hummed softly as she amended, “To be fair, he simply made it more official. I was already taking in a few of my fellow dancers when he came up with the idea.”

She shook herself lightly, off balance when there wasn’t the sensation of feathers rising in her hair to go with it. Had she hid them once while in Ariella’s nest the past two years?

So it was his idea, and he pushed for a more formal arrangement?”

And yet he shuns the title eijye? Naj was beginning to wonder if he needed to have a similar sit down talk with Kain. It was amazing the way people could run from the realities of their own minds.

Nica frowned slightly at his choice of question. Put that way, it made it sound as if Kain had created the nest. Which he had, in a round about way, if she was honest, but all the work had been herself and Dev…

She shook her head. He had merely made a suggestion that had made sense. It had been practical and safer to open a real nest. Banding together as they had had saved a lot of people, given them a refuge, a home. It had given her a purpose, to keep them all safe. It was why she’d carved a small territory out from the surrounding area, why she’d stepped on so many toes to do so.

Something like that.” She left her reply deliberately vague, unsure where this conversation was going.

“It sounds to me like he’s just throwing his weight around. I wouldn’t let him get to you.”

He subtly shifted beneath her touch to turn them both back to the stage. There was a note in her tone that told him she was still thinking, and needed time to simmer. But he’d established himself as someone she could talk to, and as far as he could tell, it was something she’d been missing.

He was wondering more and more about Kain, however. Had he deliberately isolated his eija to control her? Or was this merely an unfortunate side effect of their odd arrangement? This nest was clearly very young, for such unstable power structure to exist, but the best nests took generations to establish. He was happier than ever to be a part of it, to help relieve some of the strain. It would give him purpose that would help him escape his own troubles.

He snorted in spite of himself at the humor of that thought, and at Nica’s questioning look he knew he had to share or risk making more out of it than it was.

“Maybe he wants his own vacation.”

Naj continued to talk and she relaxed again, musing over his words. She did let Kain get to her, but he was the only one who ever gave her something new to think about. All of her ideas were bounced off Kain and he always let his opinion be known. Throwing his weight around…

Naj drew her attention again and smiling, he mentioned a vacation for Kain. Surprised, she glanced at the serpent at her side. “You think so?”

But then she remembered what Kain had been saying in the shower. He had hated having to be here without her. Perhaps he could use a chance to get away.

He shrugged slightly, trying not to dislodge her arm. He was beginning to feel like he was overstepping his bounds, but his already deep in it, and back peddling might only entrench him.

It would either give him the rest he’s looking for, or make him long for home. Either way, I can’t see the harm in a small sojourn.”

Nica tried to imagine how that conversation would go. Get out… He rarely left the nest, she’d probably have to push him out the door. Maybe she could get Dev to open a portal and trip him out of it. The idea made her smile.

True.”

Her attention turned back to the stage as the lights dimmed, the short break over and the show about to begin anew.

As the anticipatory hush fell over the crowd, Naj resettled his hands into the drawing posture. He set them on the table, a subtle reminder to Nica to do the same. He didn’t to push any more than he just had.

But whether or not Nica drew more power, Naj’s mind was made up. There was too much at work here that he didn’t know about, and so, he would arm himself in every way. He very carefully didn’t think about how aggressive that sounded, or about the possibilities he was preparing for. Power meant action, and action meant change. Who was he to enact a change here?

But action could always simple be a reaction, and Naj wanted to have options. Should the need arise.

The remaining acts were a mix of familiar pieces from this afternoon, and ones that seemed familiar to his serpent mind, clearly from nights previous, spent in the rafters. All created a swirl of vibrant energy that Naj’s aura pulled at greedily, gorging until it was more full than he could remember feeling in a long, long time. Was it because this nest was becoming his own? Or was it because he’d not seen Dev walking among the tables even once?

Chapter 13, part 1

In which someone is clearly feeling better.

As they moved through up the stairs, Nica smoothed her feathers out of her hair. She ran a free hand through it, disconcerted with the sensation as she always was. It was as if she’d suddenly donned a mask, an uncomfortable feeling as if she were hiding something.

Of course, she was, but she hated to be reminded of it. She spent so much of her time secluded among shifters that it felt wrong sometimes to have to remember that humans still didn’t know about the supernatural world.

The warmth of the backstage area distracted her thoughts. It wasn’t just the temperature, but the bustle and noise as well. A general feeling of excitement, chaotic and happy, slid over her skin and she smiled. Her hand squeezed Naj’s, glancing his way.

Just beyond him, Nat gave her a smile, nodding as she waited by the backstage curtains. She was dressed in a short skirted nurse’s uniform. Nica knew that somewhere around here would be Lena in a similar outfit if the skit hadn’t changed too much.

Naj stuck close to Nica, unsure of himself in the chaos and the noise. It pressed in around him, but the bubble of good feelings he and Nica still shared kept the worst of the buffeting at bay. At least, it helped to shield his raw aura. His other senses were on their own. The colors and cacophony, myriad of smells and the heat mixed overwhelmingly at first, but as his senses adjusted to the onslaught, he found the mad mix gelling much as their emotions had downstairs. This was a nest. This was Life. And this felt good.

Nica quickly led Naj out of the backstage, taking the hallway door to move from the back to the main floor. Here she paused, glancing around to gauge how quickly she’d be recognized – but to her relief, aside from a few glances, Matthew and Carrie held their attention to the stage.

A pang reminded her how long she’d been gone. Of course no one expected to see her on the floor. It was a strange sensation, to miss an old bother like not being able to walk onto the main floor without having to make small talk with the customers.

Kain’s raising a white rag behind the bar drew her attention and she moved in towards it. He and Dexter were both behind the bar, though she wondered at that. They hardly seemed busy enough to warrant two bartenders.

Nica found space on the short end of the bar for herself and Naj, tucking an arm around the cobra’s waist.

“I see you’re making Dexter’s job harder.” Her voice was mild and earned her a grin from the wolf at the far end of the bar. Dex touched the brim of his bowler with a free hand, nodding as he did so. That was about all the acknowledgment she was going to get while he was working.

Sure enough, he returned to the shaker in his hand, saying something to get the pair of girls before him giggling like mad.

Nica was shaking her head when Kain set two glasses of his herbal tincture in front of them. The warm smile fell right off her face. “Hell no.”

If it wouldn’t have garnered unnecessary attention, she would have thrown hers back in his face. He raised an eyebrow at her, probably knowing exactly what she was thinking. She leaned into Naj’s warmth and Kain’s eyes flicked to the black silk wrapping around her.

She knew it was a subtle reminder that she still wasn’t feeling up to her usual self. She sighed and reached for it, muttering something about the vile taste.

Kain gave her a look as he leaned close so his deep voice could be heard. “You know it’ll make you feel better.”

She gave him a dark look. “Swallow a live toad and nothing could be worse? You need a better endorsement if you actually want someone to drink these.”

Kain chuckled. “I like to think my drinks speak for themselves.” He glanced to Naj. “He doesn’t seem to have a problem with them.”

Naj dutifully drank his, wincing at the burn of the liquor. It sat better with the stew in his belly than their first dose had, but it was still less than pleasant. But it was better than the alternative.

Thank you for all your efforts,” he said, carefully to keep the thickness from his voice. “Dirt” was about the kindest endorsement he could offer the flavor.

Nica snorted, lifting her drink to sniff it. “He’s just being polite.”

Giving Naj a cheeky smile, she added, “You don’t have to be, by the way. Kain has a thick skin.” Pulling the drink away again, she grimaced, “And a thicker skull and stomach.”

Manners are just as important to have as to hear.”

It was out of his mouth without a thought, and he flung his hands to his mouth as if to stem the flood of any further rudeness.

Kain’s laughter erupted at Naj’s comment, tapping the bar as he did so. He grinned when he looked up again, dark eyes glittering in the low lighting. A few customers nearby turned to look, their own smiles in place.

He took Naj’s empty glass, still chuckling. He glanced at Nica, who couldn’t help her own smile. She rolled her eyes though when he added, “Perhaps Naj can teach you something after all.”

Naj curled in on himself under the attention. He gave a muttered thanks and dropped his head over the water glass Kain offered.

Nica gave a heavy sigh and picked up her drink, bringing it to her nose. It smelled horrible and she knew was going to regret this. Steeling herself, she downed the double-shot and immediately leaned over to lay her head on the bar. When she could finally raise her head, she took Kain’s offered shot of water and shuddered.

“I swear to the skies that you go out of your way to make that unpalatable. There’s no way anything on this earth meant to be consumed can taste that badly.” She leaned on the bar and glared at Kain, though there was mirth just under the surface. “I stand by the statement that you’re a sadist. It’s the only explanation for those things.”

Nica shook her head and shuddered again as she turned to Naj. “Come on, I’m sure there’s someplace to watch the show that doesn’t include torture or whatever madness Kain might have planned.”

Naj slipped off the stool, giving Kain a nod that he would have made a bow if he could have. He had to learn to relax, but something about the eijye simply disarmed him. Nica didn’t seem to have any such issues, however, giving the cat as good as she got. It was nearly as stunning a show at the one going on on stage.

Interlude: Dreams in the Desert, part 4

Llorinda’s fingers on the laces at his hips tickled. He wanted to bat her away, but he understood her need to make sure everything looked just so. He’d asked her to do it, out of the same fastidious need. And because she was the only female who’s eye he trusted that he actually could ask such things of.

“You’ll be fine, Meron,” she said lightly, eyes still on her work.

He wanted to scowl or give some curt reply, but the annoyance in his aura, and the anxiety underneath, were clear enough. Though he held his aura more closely than his neighbors—especially after visiting the h’somu in the mountains—skin to skin contact would tell her almost his every thought. It didn’t help that she was one of his oldest friends.

Or rather, it did help. Llorinda’s presence, her support by extension, did much to soothe his frazzled nerves. She didn’t say, “I know,” didn’t give the laces a firmer tug than necessary to drive the point home. She just quietly went about her work, sitting back on her heels occasionally to judge their evenness, and let him stew in his own dread.

It’s just a dance, he told himself. Just one stupid little dance you’ve practiced a hundred times. With his nerves this ramped up, he was just as likely to call the fire on accident as with the ceremonial dance. Either way, the central fire would be lit for the year, and his people’s prosperity would be assured.

The only real question was whether or not his dignity would survive the winter.

“Up or down?”

He started from his thoughts at Llorinda’s question, and stared stupidly down at her until she asked again.

“U-up, of course,” he said.

She nodded and began to lace the pants just under his knees. Her lack of comment prompted him to continue. “It’s traditional, isn’t it? Cuffs are worn high for any fire dances.”

Llorinda nodded again, holding one end of the cord in her teeth as she worked. Once free of the burden she answered. “I know how to dress a leh’shcarmn for a ki’ramn. I was asking you how you’d prefer to be dressed.”

He paused and mulled over her words, knowing she’d made the distinction for a reason. Was it belittling his skills, calling his footwork into question? If he wore them down, his calves wouldn’t be painted with the gold markings that would glint in the firelight, showing off the steps.

No, that wasn’t it. Llorinda would tease him about just about anything, but not things of real importance. He was truly nervous about this, and she would know it, and wouldn’t undermine his confidence.

So what was she asking? She hadn’t stopped lacing the cuff up around his knee, like he’d asked, so why even say anything? Would she be willing to take them back down if he changed his mind? He wouldn’t want to make her redo the all over again—

And it wouldn’t be like her to waste the effort, if she thought he really might. So she knew he wanted them up, but wanted him to think about why.

Was he wearing them this way, simply because of tradition? What was he trying to prove? Yes, the night was about proving their reijye was a capable areta, able to call the magic of his birthright and fit to lead them. But most of them had seen him call fire at one time or another before, albeit informally. So what was this evening really about?

How would you prefer to be dressed?

She was asking him to present his real face to the people, he realized. His friend was challenging him to be more than icon and leader to the people he lived and loved with. To stop holding himself back, to truly dance when he called the fire.

But could he do it? Could he let his people in, let them see the pain that hovered just behind his smile, darted in the shadows at the corners of his eyes, sighed out with his every laugh and joke?

“I prefer them laced down.”

“I know.”

Still she laced them above the knee, moving on to fix the next cuff.

“Your cakes taste like dirt.”

Raith made a face as Llorinda passed him a bun, frosted in honey paste. That self-pleased smile touched at the edge of her lips, and he always wondered what she was thinking when she wore that look. It couldn’t be pride in her work. Raith was right. They did taste like dirt.

Marl stumbled forward, helped along by Larai’s knee, and blushed furiously. Llorinda smiled prettily, batting her eyes and turning a little rosy herself. He wondered when the two of them were finally going to get together. Marl had fancied her all growing up, and the feeling only seemed to be deepening.

“G-good morning, Miss Llorinda.”

The other baker apprentices surfaced in a flurry of giggles, trying to look busy setting out the morning’s ware, but they were almost as gossipy as dancers. One stuck her thumb right in the middle of a fruit tart. She’d been too busy watching their group to notice.

He was never sure what drew their attention. The infamous Four Winds, his band of closest friends, or the strangely reserved romance between Marl and Llorinda. Both sights were sure to yield excellent gossip.

Larai mimicked Marl’s greeting in a high falsetto, tossing his head and looking for all the world like the stork he was nicknamed for. He wanted to throw a fish at him and see if he’d catch it with his teeth or his face.

Raith elbowed him, coming to Marl’s defense. “Manners are just as important to have as to hear,” he chided him, pushing him away from Marl and Llorinda. Larai stammered, “But you just said they taste like dirt!”, struggling to get around Raith’s corralling.

“That I did, and they do, but there’s no call to make fun of them. Good morning, Miss Llorinda.” He never looked back as he literally pushed Bird to another stall.

He walked away himself, shaking his head. He heard Marl behind him declaring that he loved Llorinda’s baking, and thought this year’s h’Cheres cakes would be the best year, echoed by another twitting of giggles from the other bakers.

He just smiled and ate his breakfast, chewing on the grit.

A hot wind blew across the desert, but it was a gentle warmth compared to the blaze from before. It carried the smell of sun and spices, a bustling marketplace somewhere far, far away. The heat wrapped around Seth, chasing away the chill that been trying to settle on him after the campfire had gone out.

For the first time since falling asleep, the creases in Seth’s forehead eased. He didn’t quite smile, but he was finally resting easily.

Character Art: Lena (WC)

Another watercolor! It’s Lena!

Oh, she just looks so soft in this. I love it! Also, Lena is flashing some of her second skin, snow leopard. It’s an ancient custom that Nica picked up from her family, and passed on to her nest. It also makes for a really neat addition to portraits. 😉

Chapter 12, part 3

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.”

Hmm….”

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.

May I?”

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.

Indeed.”

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.

“…I think.”

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.

You’re welcome.”

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,

Shall we?”

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.

Character Art: Seth (WC)

Cait started painting portraits! Of course she started with Seth. 🙂

I’m excited to see where these go. Cait has a great eye for shapes and shading. 🙂 Medium is watercolor, but that’s about all I know. If anyone has any technical questions, let us know.