Chapter 10, part 2

In which mind over matter proves to be very, very true, and very dangerous

Kain expression clouded in his sleep, head turning as if he could escape whatever was trying to bring him to wakefulness.

Everything was dark, waves upon waves keeping the sky at bay. There was a pressure within the weight, smothering and demanding everything sleep.

But it wasn’t the warm, dark cradle of earth that he knew and he turned from it, troubled. Starbursts broke his thoughts, erupting like bubbles to give him pops of sound. He followed the bubbles upwards, swimming with strong, sure strokes. He was a prince of earth and while this was not his domain, he would not be governed by another’s folly.

His eyes opened, unseeing in the dark room. Two forms lay beside him, their breathing deep and easy. With a touch, he nudged them deeper, ensuring they would not wake too soon. Something was amiss and he wanted no interruptions.

As he slipped from the bed, his awareness spread through the dark, touching other minds that slept in untroubled stillness. They, too, would not wake too early. He strode into the hallway, barely pausing for his eyes to adjust to the light that was already on in the common rooms.

His feet took him to the stairs, following the energy that crashed against his aura like waves beating upon a rocky shore. He was stone and this sea did not have time enough to carve him down to its will. He could not bury it, he could not dam it, but he could stand in its midst and not fall.

Distantly, muffled voices filtered into Nica’s ears. She was on the stage – her wing. She’d landed on her wing and the angle hurt. She should shift it away, but she needed to get up. She couldn’t rest here, what had she been thinking?

Even as the thoughts swirled about her head, they seemed to collide with one another. Nothing but noise. They were nothing but noise to her. Still, she pushed up on one arm, freeing the sharp pain. She tried to focus enough to tuck the wings away again, and she thought she succeeded, but in doing so, she lost the ability to keep herself raised off the floor. The noise was back and she couldn’t think. Her cheek was wet, had she fallen asleep in the tub again?

Naj reacted without thought. As soon as Nica was within his sight, his brain had a target, an answer to the urgency. Nica had danced with the shadows, and the illusions were using her physicality to manifest their own forms. The spell was eating her alive, and her soul was calling out for help. She needed power and she needed it fast, before the exhaustion took her. If Naj could feed the spell fast enough, it would release her, and eat its way through the limited energy available. But if Nica lost consciousness before he could end the connection, the phantom storm would rage on, without anything to direct it, or anything to keep it from consuming its caster completely.

Naj threw himself to the floor beside her, calling out to her with mind and words alike. Power raced down his arm as he touched her, booming in a thunderous strike that shook the stage. The spell-summoned clouds above them opened up, pouring a fierce, icy rain down upon them, and Naj shouted to be heard over the roaring wind. His hand was on fire where it touched Nica’s skin, and he poured out his energy without a thought. He screamed his defiance into the storm, pounding a fist shaped in the sigil of stillness onto the stage, demanding the spell acknowledge its limits. He dropped himself over Nica’s chest, shielding her with body and aura alike as the clouds unleashed their fury, and then died just as abruptly as any summer storm.

The spell was contained, and Nica’s chest rose and fell beneath his cheek, but Naj continued to call to her, murmuring over and over for her to come back to him, to come back to her nest, to come back to the home and heart she’d worked so long to build. He filled the plea with his desperation to have a home, to feel the warmth and safety she had built, to belong, to call it his own. He poured his need into her, praying it would be enough to keep her head above the icy waters of the Whispering Dark. Both their heads. Nica had crossed over into the s’era, the Void, to weave her shadows. And Naj had poured into Nica without restraint, racing to fill every empty thought and heartbeat, desperate to keep her with him. And to keep him with her. She made his blood sing, and he could not lose her, not so soon after just barely finding her.

Kain pushed through the curtain, uncertain of what he’d find on the other side. The arm he led with held his cheetah’s spots, though they were pale and stiff like granite.

The power on the other side pelted him, a storm uncontrolled. Lightning burned along his skin and he was glad when it found the earthen parts of his skin like a conduit, rolling the strike away harmlessly.

Hard eyes narrowed when they fell on the two forms at the center of the stage, the heart of the spell-storm. The serpent was bowed over a prone body, one hand outstretched to call order to the chaos that beat around them. Kain did nothing as the storm came to a rolling stop, thunder faint as if moving on as the magic spent itself, now cut off from its source.

The pair of them did not move, even after the spell had passed, and Kain took a cautious step forward. Now the roiling sea of Void beneath the storm was apparent – its call was what had woken him, not the errant spell.

He frowned, trying to untangle the moments that had brought them all here. Dancing, falling, dark waters… Memories? The air was too heavy, damp with tears and rain alike. He couldn’t follow all the threads that knotted around them, leaving them in a stranglehold of energy that would snarl and bury any who touched them. The spell was satiated and gone, but the hunger of the Whispering Dark still remained.

Kain paced to the pair of them, lips tightening at the sight of blood trickling from Nica’s nose. The magic had wrecked havoc on her physical form as well as mental. The serpent was fighting the mental fight commendably, he might even pull them both free of the Il’Rhea’s current. But on his own, it may not be soon enough.

He reached down to them, touching their skins simultaneously to push the strength and surety of the earth beneath them. Every grain of sand, every pebble, every stone built of memory, cemented together by every touch, every smile, every laugh shared. He pulled the memories from Nica, following the thread that the serpent was trying so desperately to tug. The serpent did not have the shared experience, the knowledge of Nica’s self to guide her with, but Kain did.

Together, they pulled her out of the magical rip tide and onto the metaphysical shore.

He’d stopped breathing.

Naj only knew this because the ragged breath he drew now burned through him like ice and fire combined. His fingers tingled with the force of it, blood racing to deliver suddenly needed air. He’d slipped into the il’m again, but this time, he’d gone willingly, and darkness hadn’t challenged his right to be there. But as he’d clung to Nica’s sinking song, the Whispering Dark had exerted her claim on him, and he’d stopped breathing, filling his mortal needs with raw power. He could drift forever like this, but the hawk had no such training. Her heart needed to beat, her breath needed to sing out, and Naj had no fire strong enough to tempt her with. He had emptied everything he’d had into the hungry storm she’d summoned up, and now he had nothing left to save them with.

A distant pulse echoed through his brain, calling, crying, cajoling– anything that might stir him to action. But Naj was empty, and the darkness was home.

Seth would not lay down to sleep beneath the ice.

He beat at it with swollen fists, the rhythmic thump keeping a time for his slowing heart. He would not sleep here, he would not. The il’m pulled at him, murmuring the sweet promises of peace that lured so many servants of Il’Dao into the dark. She wanted him, after so many years of drawing on magics that shouldn’t be his. But Seth hadn’t fought the il’m for so many centuries just to give up now.

When Naj had breathed his last, Seth threw more fury into his fists, spurred on by the feelings of the first cracks. He kicked when the ice gave way to water, slowly releasing its hold. Seth kicked, deliberate, rhythmic beats like the pounding of his fists. He would find the surface again, he would not sleep here, and he would drag them all with him. He could not stop.

And then the shore was reaching out to meet him, sand and stone realigning to cut the distance. Seth reached with a grasping hand, kicking, kicking, gasping when his head finally broke the surface. He crawled panting on the shore, using the last of his will to pull Nica and Naj to lay on the familiar white sand beside him. Only then did he allow himself to collapse, all his thoughts on his breath, in and out, in and out, until it would become natural again.

Nica was warm where she had been cold, but she couldn’t open her eyes. She was tired, so tired, why wouldn’t Ariella let her rest?

Arms were around her, strong and steady and she was safe. She was away from the driving force, away from the pounding insistence. A voice murmured in her ear, but she was too tired to understand the words. It meant sleep and so she slept.

Naj curled into the feeling warm stone against his skin, his mind still drifting safe between the sun and the sand. It wasn’t the weightless drifting of the dark waters, but he felt he was drifting nonetheless, with nothing to tie his awareness to his body. He was warm, he was safe, and that was good enough.

Miles and miles away, he knew he was opening his eyes. Across the great distance, he saw a shadow looming over him, felt the brush of hair and feathers along his cheek. But the effort to cross the space was too great, so he simply watched as the shadow fell over him, and he was carried away in a swirl of sunshine and stone.

Kain sighed as both of them gave into a harmless, less permanent sleep. Their minds were still on the metaphysical shores of the Il’Rhea, bodies and less material parts still not quite in harmony with one another. But on shore they could rest, though both were cool to his touch.

His lips twisted into a frown as he looked down at the pair before him, the last remnants of the spell fading on their skin. It was almost pretty, if it wasn’t colored by the irritation he was left with. What the hell had they been thinking?

The answer, clearly, was they weren’t. He didn’t know which one of them had started it, but he was plenty agitated to have to clean up after two of them. The serpent had done well enough to keep them both awake and treading water long enough for Kain to reach them, but he didn’t like that this was his wake up.

He stared at the curtains beyond them, lips pursing as he checked that everyone was still asleep. He was going to catch hell from Nat and Gwen for spelling them like that. Double damn.

Kain closed his eyes, letting his growing ire bleed into the rock so far below his feet. Later. It would wait until later. Right now the crisis had passed, but he still had cleaning up to do. With a shake of his arm, the stone vanished beneath his usual dark muscle.

He repositioned the serpent so he could scoop him and Nica up into his arms together. Carrying them as one, he headed downstairs, where they would at least be protected under the wards.

As he maneuvered the stairs, his destination narrowed. A hot bath would do both of them more good than a pile of blankets. Not to mention it would take less energy on his part. He had hardly drained his own resources, but it had been decades since he’d had to pull power like that. It bothered him that not only had he done it, but he had not hesitated to do so.

Decades of habit could not undo centuries of practice so it seemed. If the past was what the serpent was going to bring to the nest, perhaps this wasn’t the place for an ex Dai operative.

Chapter 10, part 1

In which the dam breaks, and the floods rise

She would be lying if she didn’t admit to herself that she was smarting from Naj’s dismissal. Nica had opted not to eat anything before dancing, sore that she’d been dismissed and sorer still that she had been so affected by it.

She stood on the stage, back to the rich curtain as she stared at the stacked chairs and wooden tables. The passage of time blurred in her memories when everything still seemed the same as she’d left it. Old pain distracted her from the newer sting of the slight and she was able to take a deep, grounding breath.

Striding across the stage, she flexed her shoulders, wings sprouting from her shoulder blades. She took a moment, orienting herself to the new balance and feeling how the muscles sat differently as she moved arms and wings alike.

Deliberately trying to let it all go, she flexed her wings forward, running her fingertips along the shafts of some primary feathers. The black and white barring faded into a brilliant rust at the joint. The red cascaded down the uppermost part of her wing until it hit her back. One beat, two and she nodded to herself. She could do this.

Nica felt full of energy, better for the night of rest and the easy waking of a gentle dance. She surely felt better than she had all the times Ariella had had her practice, drowsy and half asleep on her feet. Now her movements felt sharp, precise, and she was confident that she could do it alone.

It wasn’t that she’d needed the falcon’s guidance, only that Ariella was such a finicky teacher, convinced no one could do anything right if she wasn’t watching.

Shaking her head, she pushed thoughts of the falcon aside. Getting her blood to boil would hardly help her concentrate on her dance.

Finding the center of the stage, she raised her arms high, crossing them at the wrists and posing her hands to open her energies. Her thoughts briefly flicked to Naj, seeing the similarity in the hand shape, but remembering his dismissal from her own room shut that avenue down quickly. Once on the balls of her feet, she concentrated on drawing a straight line through her.

She swayed from foot to foot, finding the right rhythm for the dance. When she was sure of herself, she began to lay the footwork that would help her build the energy necessary for the illusion she was about to cast.

Of the dances she performed, it wasn’t uncommon for her to weave illusions or suggestions to fool the skin or the ears. It seemed the body craved deceit for those receptors or at least was more susceptible to it. But the dance she was about to perform created a visual illusion and that seemed harder to fool.

She summoned as much energy as she could muster and then began.

Naj pushed against hands in the darkness, shapeless forces willing him down, willing him to forget, to sleep. He couldn’t see, couldn’t think, but he knew he must keep pushing, upward, upward, ever upwards. He must get up.

Seth struggled against the currents, struggled against Naj’s flailing hands, struggled to keep his head above the icy waters. Between the emotional turmoil and the elemental energies they’d raised but not balanced, their mindscape was awash with darkness. Like the mythical river Il’Rhea, whose banks housed the resting dead, Naj’s magic and memories and feelings swirled in chilling blackness. Waves crashed in shouts, currents pulled like so many hands, each one eager to draw him into the dance, each one calling to him with the siren song of memory. In death, such waters would be peaceful, a sweet remembrance of lives well lived. With the press of so many years, Naj and Seth could drown before their time, lost to these memories in the Whispering Dark. Seth forced his way past them all, not letting any one face attach to any one name, lest he give a voice a stronger pull than the others.

But there was a voice, pulling strong and sweet, the shining memory not tarnished with the passage of time. Naj grasped at every echo they passed, desperate and overwhelmed by the weight of them, usually kept back by Seth’s skillful hand. While Seth was able to surge ahead past the long dead ghosts with practiced ease, the golden thread was too insistent, still singing strong and resilient in the Now.

Nica.

Such a recent memory might be enough to pull them from the Il’Rhea and out onto the banks, if Naj’s heart was not so full of doubt. Worry for Nica was what had started this downward slide in the first place. Had he hurt her? Directly with his twisted magic, or with the sharper knife of harsh words? He had felt her unhappiness when Seth sent her away, amplified by their connected auras and his own hurt and confusion. Anger colored his panic– anger at his helplessness, anger at the Dai, anger at Seth for sending Nica away. He wanted to stay with Nica, where was Nica? Naj jerked Seth’s mental grasp, and Seth could no longer fight the currents and Naj both at once. A wave of helplessness crested, and they both went under.

Nica threw herself into the movements, picking up speed and layering the energies on top of one another without pause. She knew from experience if she doubted even one of her motions, the entire structure would collapse like a house of cards.

Her wings swept forward and left red in their wake, her hand swept through and left behind drops of purple to mingle and bleed into the red. A twirl and one wing swept it aside to leave a swath of inky darkness that hid her behind it. Furious motions cut through it in places, letting color accent the darkness until she threw herself through it, her wings arcing back to carry the darkness high as if hoisting the night sky itself.

On impulse, her voice suddenly broke through the silence, echoing in the large room. Ariella had mentioned building the magic was about intent, and that voice held as much will as the physical body if done correctly. Nica had never tried it, but her confidence in the picture she was weaving and the swirl of energy around her made her sure of the wordless song. With her voice, she built further layers of energy, stoking them into a fine fury to paint the tapestry above her with the colors of sunset. Her voice was void of words, but not of meaning or intent and as she danced, she wove the notes and movements together as a single creature.

A low spin and one wing swept the ground with greenery that twined and flared behind her, another pass and bursts of color appeared on the edges of the twining vines that appeared to chase her legs, trying to capture her feet in their tendrils. Sharp notes brought burst of colors in midair that took flight on their own, bursting through the sky to abruptly vanish.

Another sweep of her wings as she leapt had the air above her darkening and churning on itself, weaving greys with blues and the hint of green. A tempest rained upon her and still she danced, pushing herself to build it further.

It was more than she’d managed before, the pressure of the energies laid heavy on her skin and in her body. She knew when she finished that she would be exhausted again, but for this one moment, it was worth it.

She sang to the skies to burst the clouds and bring the rain, adding vibrancy to the life beneath her feet. When she finally stilled her feet, the vines wrapped around her ankles and she hit her knees, letting the last of the notes fade into the air as the visual magic faded with it. The fall had been planned, but hasty, and she could feel a faint throb from the impact already.

Her heart was pounding and she couldn’t get air into her lungs fast enough. It was as if she were still dancing, still drawing the energy higher and higher, to altitudes she couldn’t sustain. Spots danced in her vision and she tried to steady herself with her hands. On either side, her wings trembled with the exertion.

There was only darkness, but it was neither peaceful, nor still. Echoes of color remained, but he could not remember what color was. Or what it meant to remember at all. Self was a fleeting dream, fading into the nothingness that was Something without form, Life before chaos became order from sleep, Life as it would return once order slept again.

Within the quivering darkness, a sound. A song began, wordless, but carrying with it all that “song” meant, and echoes of light, and fire. Heat and life and wild determination cut the darkness with its cry, and Naj clung to it, the last thought before the void.

And from the sound came color, and light, and living things, growing fast in the rich, potent darkness. Vines and hands surged upward, clinging to the song, clawing their way through the night to reach for the fire painted sky. Desperation pulled at the clouds, brought swirling into life by the need for something to hold on to. And once he had a hold of them, they burst in a shower of passions too over-ripe to contain.

The Need and the vines and the Self pulled the passion down to it, wrapping around the singer to hold her close, to remember her name, to remember life and light and dancing. Self willed the vines to seek upward, ever upward, until they burst through the clouds, and his ears were filled with the rushing of water.

Drowning. He had been drowning, and now he was dying. If he could not get his head above water, could not draw a breath, he would die. No magic here would sustain him, not with the Life he held so desperately around him. These were the Dark Waters, Il’Rhea, the passage to Death, and he would find no aide given to a heart that sought the Light. Naj gave a fierce kick, and another, and another, striving towards the light.

Nica thought her heart was slowing, but she couldn’t tell anymore. There was just a dull roar in her ears that she distantly knew to be the sound of her blood.

The spots of her vision had given way to a hazy ring of darker gray at the edges. She felt cold and every blink felt sluggish. On hands and knees, she knew she should move, that she should elevate her legs, but she couldn’t remember how. Or perhaps the trouble was simply in getting her body to do as she told it. She was sure she had tried to stand, but here she stayed.

Her entire body ached, but it felt distant, though not numb. Crimson spots hit the wooden stage in front of her eyes and she stared blindly. They should mean something to her, but she couldn’t make them tell her what that was. Then they were zooming out, going distant and clearly unimportant.

Her eyes blinked once more, then refused to open. She was so tired. Maybe she hadn’t slept as well as she’d thought. A sharp pain brought her eyes wide and she was staring at a stretch of empty stage and chairs.

With a raging surge, he remembered Body, not the form he used to traverse dreams such a this, but the real physical vessel that breathed and danced and hurt. Oh, it hurt. How long had he sat like this, arms and legs crossed, containing the maelstrom of power that raged within? He stretched, and once remembered, arms and legs coursed with the urgency of MOVE! He was on his feet and racing down the hall before he had untangled that bodies meant boundaries, and he could not simply will himself to where he needed to be.

But he desperately needed to be somewhere. And some wordless part of him knew where that was. So Naj let his frightened feet take him to where he needed to be, and he hoped that his mind would understand once he’d arrived.

Previous: Chapter 9, part 3

Chapter 9, part 3

In which Naj takes the lead

“Just follow my lead.” He held his hands up in front of him, palms forming cups, one open to the sky and one pouring down into the earth. “Do you know this shape?” It was ARE, an opening prayer, and the foundation of everything. If last night’s dancing was any indication, she would know it well, but as with Marie, he opted to over explain rather than leave anything out.

Her hands mimicked his, even as her posture straightened. It was habit by now, the two years spent in Ariella’s nest had been spent training with the falcon, and she was an effective teacher, if a bit severe.

Between learning at the falcon’s knee and her family being fond of rei’ramn, Nica knew a few hand shapes, and while she didn’t recognize all the ones he had used last night, this one she was familiar with.

The ARE. All that is, all that was, and all that would ever be.

ARE – the All.” Her eyes opened, flicking to his.

He nodded, thoroughly pleased. It was beyond wonderful to be with someone who knew the old ways. It was home.

Seth eyed the hawk before him, putting her aura under careful scrutiny. She appeared just as she claimed– strong in raw power, but only rudimentary trained. The energy of the room swirled around her, drawn to the center of the nest, but didn’t stick. She wasn’t channeling. Even an aura currently inactive would draw in the power if it was well accustomed to doing so. This raptor was an areta, there was magic in her dancing, but it was incidental. Still…

Naj seemed truly delighted to be teaching, lost in the simple pleasure of it, no unsavory memories surfacing… Oh, to hell with it. Seth saw no harm in it, and Naj had to be allowed to form bonds within the nest. So he relaxed his reluctance and allowed Naj to continue. How much trouble could they get into merely meditating?

Abruptly, Naj dove right into the lesson, rolling his left hand up to join the right so that both palms cupped upward. He linked them at the thumbs, making a small x where they lay on each other.

This is also ARE, though you must narrow your focus to see it. Forget the fingers, for now, and focus on the cups made by your thumbs. Still, this is All there is.”

Her brow furrowed slightly, following his motions. She could see it, but he was right, it wasn’t obvious at first.

Her breathing fell into the steady rhythm Ariella had drilled into her, her center becoming still as she focused in on the shape of her hands.

Nica didn’t make any comment one way or another, but Naj could feel her focus, could sense her aura shrinking down to the point of her crossed thumbs, and so he continued.

He wiggled his outstretched fingers, feeling the energy dance and sing along their slender lengths, waiting to be tapped.

“Each finger pair aligns with an il’li Daeos. Li’Il, being the first to be born, are the longest.”

He touched his index fingers together, leaving the rest spread wide. Those fingers really didn’t have anything to do with the shaping of Li’Ilnar, but if they touched each other accidentally, it could be distracting at best, or potentially create a new symbol. He glanced over at Nica’s hands, making sure her fingers were out of the way, but she’d mirrored his alignments perfectly. Naj assumed her silent concentration was a testament to her falcon training– he too knew how unwise it was to interrupt one when teaching. So he pressed on, but made a point of watching her more carefully out of the corner of her eye. He wasn’t sure if he could trust her to speak up if she had any issues.

“If you wanted Il to rule the sigil instead of Li, you’d simply drop your fingers so that they touched at the nail instead of the pads. See?”

The instant he curled his fingers, he felt the energy lock, held still by the small circles his fingers created. Nica’s aura clamped down around her as well, but the only indication she gave of noticing the change was a slight narrowing of her gaze. Could she see the magic they were shaping? He’d love to talk with her at length about it, at some point. But right now, they had work to do, lest the energy slip away.

“Some prefer to change the crossing of their thumbs, as well, putting dominant hand over the other, to balance the darker force of Il. But I’ve always found that weakens the power, and I’ve never had any trouble directing the energy where I want it.”

No, the only trouble he’d had with Il’Dao was returning from the il’m, that Whisphering Darkness. With that sobering thought, he spread his fingers wide again, letting the trapped energy out. His fingers tingled with the force of it, and again, he felt the tugging of the new day. He breathed deeply to settle himself, drawing the Now deep within him. Forward, ever forward. Etren e’ramn.

“The other il’li-Daeos follow as they should: Ki’Ik, Aehr’Rhea, Anhk’Khna.” His fingers flicked through the motions, fingertips touching as he ticked off each name. Nica, he noticed, did not do the same. He imagined she’d wait, until she knew exactly what her motions might invoke. She was an excellent student, but somewhat unsettling after the rapid-fire chatter of Marie. But if Nica would wait for full understanding before acting, then he’d simple work through the lesson and check for understanding when he’d finished.

“To access only one half of an il’li, close the fist you won’t be using down, making sure all your fingers are grounded, touching your palm. Then simply touch the finger you wish to access to the direction you want the energy to flow: Li or Il.”

He touched the pinkie of his right hand to the thumb of the right, opening it up. Again, the energy raced, flying out to all corners and filling up his core.

“With everything open like this, you can fill all of the other spaces, having energy to call on as you need it.”

He opened his left hand again, bringing both of his index fingers to touch his left thumb. Light and Dark swirled in his mind, filling his thoughts and coloring the music that beat in his chest. These would be his primary resources, the Daeos he knew best. Next strongest would be his ties to h’Ki’Ik, but anything stored in the name Il’Dao and Li’Daea could be molded into the shape of any of their children, so he would fill them fullest.

Il. Dark. Li. Light. She knew the names, the motions becoming more familiar. Her aura danced as she did so. And her breathing caught, then fell back into rhythm as she realized the energies were pulling one another in her hands, shaping in her aura as surely as her muscle and bone shaped them. It was a heady feeling, but she forced herself to focus on Naj’s words.

Later, she would consider how old he was, or what tradition he followed that practiced such energy manipulation. Perhaps she would talk it over with Kain. For now though, she was learning, both this new technique and about this new serpent, pushing the coursing thoughts under to focus.

“Be careful not to overfill any one il’li, you’re new at this yet. Move on to the next pair of digits.”

The energies flowed through her easily– too easy for Naj’s liking. Either she had skill with this and didn’t know to call it in this way, or she was dangerously ungrounded from recent deprivation or distress. Either way, this could swing her just as wildly out of balance, with how quickly everything was flowing. In such a new student, there should hardly be any change at all. He should have asked, but he didn’t know what to make of this dancer who wore feathers and sang in serpent tongue.

Nica followed his instruction, letting her fingers shift through the motions. She could almost feel when she should move, as if pouring water into a cloudy jug and judging fullness by sound alone. It was an apt comparison that mimicked his words and she wondered exactly what this meditation’s purpose was. She felt centered, yes, but she could also feel her aura swirling around her, the energy pooling on itself.

Her voice was soft as she formed the last of the shapes. Clearly speaking didn’t disrupt the energies, and Naj had stopped explaining each motion. She was too used to waiting until Ariella invited questions. “And afterwards?”

Naj blinked at the suddenness of her voice. It had a low, husky quality that didn’t quite fit with how her energy roared and sparkled. Deprivation, he decided, was what had her soaking up the energies they’d raised so quickly. He had yet to even move on to the second set of fingers. Then again, his Li’Il could hold a considerable amount.

No matter. She was ready to finish, and Naj didn’t foresee needing to fall back on his reserves any time soon. He could eat at will, sleep at will, and had nestmates to curl up with when he was cold. The only thing he would need stored energy for would be areta’ramn, and he really couldn’t imagine being called on to cast anything in this nest.

He spread his fingers wide again, releasing his grip and letting his aura flow wherever it wished.

“Return to our starting posture, so everything can settle. Like laying a blanket out flat before folding it, be sure everything is smooth before locking it down.”

At that, he interlaced all of his fingers save the index pair, which he set into a steeple, then dropped down again to touch at the knuckles. He uncrossed his thumbs, pressing them into the sides of his curled fingers, then brought the heels of his hands together.

“This is the closing, locking everything in place before opening your hands in release.”

He rolled his palms towards the ceiling, uncurling his fingers. He stretched his cupped hands away from him and up to the sky, much like the eipratei posture he’d taken up the night before.

“Anything we’ve raised but not captured is now released to the ARE, and it and we are free to go about our work.”

A deep feeling of peace hovered over him, urging him to relax and bask, but first he had to see to his student. He gave her questioning eyes, checking over her aura with a gentle brush of his own. It seemed in order, but closed down like this, there were things he might miss.

It was an odd sensation, feeling the energy swirl, then settle as if it hadn’t been moving at all. But she followed his motions and the dizzying sensations passed.

She raised her hands with his and could feel her aura stretch with it, the offering vanishing to leave her fingers tingling and self strangely lighter. It was the same weightless feeling of taking flight and she blinked a few times to remind herself of her human form – even if her feathers did raise and resettle among her hair.

Nica took a deep breath, blowing it out slowly. She found him studying her and a small smile answered him. “I understand it was a meditation on the elemental energies, but to what purpose? The dance grounded and centered me, so my balance is hardly different…”

She trailed off as she thought about it, letting her focus trail over her aura. It did feel… Fuller? Was that what he meant by ‘filling’ each position? She felt more awake, as if she had more energy, but that could also be from the morning dance, or simply having fully woken.

Well. He wasn’t going to be using the energy anyways.

On a dramatic whim, Naj pinched his left thumb and forefinger together and flicked his wrist. A wave of darkness boiled from his hand, spill down and curling around the floor like smoke, It rose to fill the room around them, plunging them into a sightless nothing in an instant. With an equal but unseen twist from his right hand, a pure, white light burst forth, chasing the darkness to the corners of the room. In an unnecessary but elegant flourish, Naj called the power back to him in a curl of his fingers. It was only slightly diminished, as illusion magic hardly needed any energy at all, but it had been worth the show.

He gave Nica a wicked grin, teeth and eyes flashing with mirth.

For the purpose of showing off, among other things.”

Her eyebrows rose as her eyes widened. She recognized illusion magic when she saw it – she’d spent the past few weeks barely sleeping to master the technique at Ariella’s hand. And that was after years of pestering the falcon to teach her the technique in the first place. Illusion dances were one of the rarer and more ambitious skills available to a dancer. Partially because you had to find a master of it that was willing to teach it in the first place. There were a few in Ariella’s nest that held the skill, but only the falcon herself could successfully teach the technique behind it.

Impressive.” She tilted her head slightly as she regarded him anew. That he held the skill to do so was both commendable… And concerning. After his display last night, she was unsure of his current level of control. While illusion magic was simply that, illusion, the amount of energy it cost the weaver could be damaging if one wasn’t careful.

Do you ramn tr’vr’era as well?”

Naj’s own eyes grew wide at her question. An aret’vir’ramn, an illusion dance, was a very different thing than a ramn’tr’vr’era. To dance a shadow into being, with so much of your own energy and self involved would be costly, and unspeakably dangerous. Yes, it was doable, by why take such a risky route, when you could simply coerce the energies around you into taking the right shape?

Unless…

Naj knew the Dai were innovators, if nothing else. Ruthless, amoral innovators, yes, but Naj knew many of his skills were due entirely to their experiments and trials. What he didn’t know is where those techniques came from, and what they looked like in their original forms. And why they differed from the Dai’s way of doing them. He suddenly wondered if he should have shown Nica this at all, or if he himself should even be practicing it. It was just a meditation, right?

But to what purpose?

Nica’s question rang out in his mind, and Naj didn’t have any answers. Not ones that didn’t belong to another life, another Naj, servant of a man who was servant to a power that had shaped the world for centuries– but to what purpose? He didn’t like that he couldn’t answer that, but he suspected he’d like the answer even less.

And just like that, Naj was lost again. This raptor was proving to be a problem. Yes, she drew out of a Naj a fire like no other, but she also drew darker memories that Seth couldn’t keep repressed. Not with Naj actively pushing for them. This wasn’t going to work if the man kept insisting on living in days gone by. Seth had to ground him in the now, and keep yesterday where it belonged.

It was a mistake to have let Naj teach her such things. But it had been so long since Naj had been motivated to do anything of his own will that Seth had let it go. It was just one mistake after another in this nest– surely, Aezir didn’t think Naj would actually do well here–

But he was, little mishaps aside. He was smiling. He was dancing. Yes, he was digging, but maybe… Maybe with enough warmth and light in the Now…

The Now was a curious raptor woman, waiting for an answer to what she thought was an innocent question. Damn it all, this was a mess.

Ah, no,” Seth said lightly, pushing a blanket of il’m further over Naj’s unhappy crisis.

That wasn’t a ramn, it lacks the force and structure a proper shaping dance would give it. This was simply me taking advantage of energies already raised, and minds already attuned. A parlor trick.” He shrugged, and pulled himself more upright, as he had at the beginning of their meditation.

We’ve done enough for now, but I have forces yet to balance, so if I might have a moment?”

What he needed was time to talk with Naj again in the White Desert, and reset things to the proper order. He knew it was rude to ask for Nica’s own space, but every second he wasted, he risked Naj slipping too far into the Whispering Dark. Slap-on bandages were never meant to be used long term.

Nica smiled, careful not to show her surprise when Naj’s answer took a little too long and didn’t quite match the question she’d asked. With an inclination of her head, she agreed to his request. It was odd, how the instruction had brought them together, but now she felt the forced distance between them. Between the dancing last night and their time together this morning, she had forgotten that he was a relative stranger to her. It was something that happened between serpents, a press of will and soul that almost instantly told two serpents if they resonated and would get along well, or if they would clash. It was speculated that it was what allowed serpents to dance seamlessly together and she and Kis had spent hours talking of its origin.

Now though, that instant camaraderie had dissolved, though perhaps only she felt it. It wasn’t often she doubted how her avian heritage influenced the culture she’d been raised by.

She smoothed her sarong before she stood. “Of course. I’ll be upstairs if you need me, I’d intended on practicing a few dances before anyone else wakes.”

He nodded brusquely, hating to chase away anyone Naj might call friend, but it would be a moot point if he lost the fool to the il’m now.

Thank you,” he said quickly, trying to salvage the growing connection to the hawk, even as he pushed to get her out of the way. “I won’t be long, I just-” He hissed in a sharp breath as a particularly nasty memory surfaced and his concentration slipped. He couldn’t keep this up much longer.

It’s painful, holding this much energy out of alignment. I’ll be fine, after a moment to sort it out. I’ll come find you, so you don’t worry needlessly.”

He hoped that was enough to appease her. He was out of time, and without another word, he threw up a mental shield around them and dove into the dark mindspace he’d errected around Naj.

Previous: Chapter Nine, part 2

Chapter 9 part 2

In which Nica dreams, and Naj feels the call of his nest leader.

She dreamed of laughter.

Laughter that rose and fell like flutes, traveled on the wind like windchimes, music weaving together into a song of family. She ran towards the sounds, towards home.

She was running through a garden that was a riot of color. Yellows, reds, purples, oranges – all blending together with a background of greenery that stretched higher than her head. Her feet barely felt the soft grass underfoot, but the sudden slap of stone under her told her she was nearly there.

The protective cover of color gave way to a clearing, and her feet left the ground. An arm about her waist lifted her high, sweeping her into a flying arch that turned into a cradling hug. Her wings wrapped around them both, creating a cocoon of warmth, bouncing their laughter back to them.

Nica looked up into the dark eyes of Zeke. He strode forward as if her wings weren’t completely blocking his vision, a mirthful smirk on his lips. It was a favorite game of his to catch her off-guard, and he was one of the best cousins at hide and seek.

She twisted in his grip to look where they were going, grinning when she saw her father sitting at his sister’s side, a large fire already going to ward against the coming chill of the night. Her feathers kept her warmer than her serpent kin, but she still enjoyed watching the dance of the ember and flame.

A small dark bundle hit and clung to Zeke’s arm, pulling them all off balance. Nica squealed in delight as Zeke tilted dangerously to one side, threatening to dump her on top of his assailant. She knew her cousin would never drop her, but Leem’s grinning face was suddenly inches from hers. The small serpent quickly wiggled his way upward, until Zeke was carrying both of them towards the fire.

It was Ari, her uncle, that asked Zeke where the rest of the children were. Her big cousin shrugged with a carefree grin as he shook Leem loose before settling Nica down on a sitting stone. Ari sighed melodramatically before berating Zeke for losing his younger cousins, but it was short lived as Nema’s voice rose in a melodic, lilting song.

Though she wasn’t much older than Nica, there was a quiet serenity that hung about Nema that made the young girl feel as solid and weathered as a large oak. Nica watched her eyes close, probably searching for the ‘lost’ cousins. With a grin, Nica joined her wordless call, practicing harmonizing as Nema’s pitch and cadence shifted like the wind.

In answer, laughter and soft shouts preceded the cousins emerging from the surrounding gardens. Some joined the song, some simply fell silent as they reached the fire ring to listen. From the other side of the circle, Nica heard her mother’s rich alto join the chorus. She closed her eyes, savoring the sound of their voices weaving together in the coming dusk, a warmth of belonging swelling in her chest until tears trickled from under her lashes.

Nica’s eyes were damp when she woke and the dark warmth of the room was disorienting. There was a warm body tangled with hers, but there was no answering press at her back. The scent of serpent was strong, but it was different somehow. With a jolt, understanding returned. She was in Asylum, where she’d fallen asleep with Naj, their new dancer.

A pulse of sadness beat in her breast, hard and sharp, before it faded again to be buried under years of acceptance. She still mourned her family, but the dream had been a sweet one, full of tender memories she would not give up to grief.

She laid there for a while, letting herself wake slowly and taking care not to rouse Naj too soon. He had been exhausted and needed his rest.

Eventually her mind turned from her dream and thoughts of family to the day before her. She would likely not dance tonight, but if it was as early morning as she thought, she might have the opportunity to practice the skill she’d been working on with Ariella the past few weeks. The stage would be empty this early, the perfect, uninterrupted opportunity to get a few repetitions in. It would be one of the first times she’d performed it without the falcon keeping watch, but she had practiced often enough by now, she should have it down.

Before such a taxing dance though, she should warm up. Taking care not to wake Naj, she untangled herself from the nest of blankets and serpent. Straightening her sarong and halter, she stepped into the center of her room, stretching her muscles slowly, taking stock of what felt stiff.

When she felt ready, she began to the dance to Greet the Sun.

He woke to the gentle sound of soft footfalls. Not even sound, really, more …vibrations. The trembling filled his limbs like sunlight slowly fills a room as the day begins to break. The energy was almost like a small child, waiting patiently for her parent to wake so the fun and laughter of the day could begin. It wasn’t demanding, exactly, but it was insistent, or persistent. The feeling would keep quietly tugging at him until he noticed it, responded to it, and rose to greet the day. A soft smile touched his lips and he opened his eyes a crack to humor it.

He saw tendrils of light, ever so faint, gathering around a dancer. He blinked rapidly, certain he was still dreaming, but he never dreamed like this. Eyes closed, he could feel the pull of her, tugging at him to join her and greet the day. When he opened his eyes again, the tendrils were gone, but he could still sense the pull of them, follow the trail of them as they wrapped about her form like a tapestry. As Nica reached for the sun, the sun reached back, even here, so far underground. Naj paused, struck by a snatch of memory, flashing brightly and then gone. Wings, golden and shining, sunlight glinting on the waves, a clifftop city, built half on and half in the stone, nearly lost in the glare of the setting sun. Or had it been rising? Fog rolled in over the waves, over his thoughts. His eyes had drifted closed and he was drifting in his thoughts, tossed on a forgotten sea…

The tug became more insistent. Sure that he was awake now, it demanded that he rise and join in the movement happening around him. Without him. If he didn’t get up soon, it would move on, seeking other dancers more willing to heed the eija’s call. It would leave him behind in his musings, stuck in the past as the Now moved on. Naj conceded, rolling onto his back in the tangle of blankets, surrendering his sleep g to join the growing energy calling to him. He arched his back, stretching his limbs as long as he could make them, drawing himself out in a thin, long line. He felt a humming tendril shoot through him, racing to the tips of his fingers and toes, still pulling him upward and onward. He sat up, reaching for his toes, his waking groans joining in the low humming that permeated the room. He smiled at Nica as he rose and began the slower steps of the beginning of the mn’kai’li ramn, the song of the sun’s dance. Nica wasn’t too much further along, he would catch up to her shortly. The insistent pull would not let him fall behind.

As she began to move, Nica closed her eyes as thoughts of sunlight and joy filled her body. Behind her, she could feel the first tendrils of wakefulness from Naj.

She returned his smile, realizing she was humming the song from her dream when he began humming along. As she continued the movements, she let her humming continue as well, since it obviously wasn’t bothering Naj. Briefly, she wondered if she had woken him, but she let it go as she initiated the next round of movements. She let her body stretch to its fullest at she reached over head, coming to her toes. When Naj joined her, she moved to the side to give him room.

He didn’t linger in the movements as long as he usually would. He wasn’t rushing to catch up to Nica, exactly, half so much as her energy was pulling him along. When they met up, it would slow, and he would match pace with her. Synchronizing with unfamiliar dancers was nothing new to him, as long as he was familiar with the energy of the dance, he could match that, and synergy with the actual dancer would follow with time. It was enjoyable to be caught up in the rush of her dance, pulling him along to keep up, very much like an excited child. He found the enthusiasm catching.

She grinned as she watched Naj pace himself to catch up, and let the words slip along the notes she was creating. She set the words to the music of her feet, letting her joy and purpose greet the day.

Nica let the movements sweep her along, no longer watching Naj, simply feeling his energy add to the dance. He felt warm next to her, not as cool or still as he had when she’d first met him. It was comforting in its own way.

She felt centered, where she should be, in her element, in her nest. This was home.

She let the last note linger as she fell into the last movement, resting against the carpet as her heartbeat began to slow again, though her lips still held a smile.

He let himself move more languidly through his paces now. His heart pumped strong and steady in his chest, and his limbs seem to stretch past his fingertips and toes. He rolled his shoulders, turning the movement into a fold at the waist and just hung, letting everything loosen and flow. Then he dropped to a seated position, tucking one foot into his lap and the other under his knee. He felt inspired to run through the rest of his morning paces, habits long ingrained in him and long forgotten, or so he’d thought. With this much energy coursing through him, he couldn’t imagine leaving it to ebb slowly from him, forgotten as he went about his day. No, this should be stored up, tucked away with words and gestures into pockets of his soul, to be called on when the days were long and rest was in short supply.

As he shaped his hands into the Ahnk’nar, the spirit pose, he felt a snag in the currents of the room.

Oh. Nica.

He hadn’t been dancing alone. And more importantly, he hadn’t been dancing with a nestmate of the Ahn’ki Dai. She wouldn’t fall into the same habits of energy preservation– if she had any training with such techniques at all. The only magic she’d displayed so far was incidental, latent or a mere side effect. But even with training, his Dai variations on form must look peculiar at best, being such an odd blend of seemingly incompatible magics. Sheepishly, he raised his eyes back to hers, giving her an timid smile.

“Good morning, areta. Thank you for calling me to greet the day. It was most invigorating.”

He flexed his fingers, feeling the connection waver without the proper channel, and the loose energy swirled about his hands. The space between his palms warmed, and he did his best to keep it from escaping.

She brought her head up, languidly arching her back. When he greeted her, she glanced over at him, having to pause a moment to remember that areta was an old word for dancer.

Nica gave him a small smile, her feathers ruffling and resettling as she moved to better watch him and the motions he was making with his hands. “You’re quite welcome. I enjoyed having someone join me, though I hadn’t meant to wake you.”

I didn’t mind.”

His smile blossomed, and the happiness he felt raced down his arms to pool at the growing heat between his hands. Reflexively, he twitched his fingers towards Il’nar, to halt the spread.

He noticed her gaze falling to his hands. He lifted them slightly, as if in offering and asked “Would you like to join me in this as well?”

She tilted her head slightly, shifting her sarong as she sat beside him. Now that she wasn’t focused on stretching, she could feel a shift in their auras, almost a pull against hers. “I was curious about what you’re doing.”

His answering laugh was small and good natured. “Preening my feathers.” She made a face, as he suspected she would. The old falcon idiom made little sense coming from a cobra. “My teacher’s term. It’s energy manipulation, arrangement and storage. Nothing more complex than meditating with my hands. Hardly different from dancing.”

Though he didn’t move at all physically, he shifted his aura to make a welcoming space for her. He felt her energy flow into it without a thought, and he wondered again about her background and education. She didn’t appear old enough to have been trained before the old ways had fallen out of favor—but then, with the lengthened lives most shifters boasted, it could be difficult to tell.

Only one way to find out. Naj was surprised to find the dry voice unusually encouraging, but it was nice to be of one mind for once. He settled himself more firmly on the floor, feeling his hipbones shift ever so slightly. But that pulled his spine straighter, which drew his shoulders into alignment, and bit by bit, everything settled into place. The pooling energy in his hands flowed into the newly aligned channels, and Naj smiled.

Chapter 9 part 1

In which Nica and Naj play well together.

Nica left the showers to redress in her room, picking a deep red sarong to tie about her waist and a rich golden halter to go with it. By now everyone should be upstairs finishing the last minute details for opening the club.

She sighed as she tied the halter around her neck, glancing at the mirror only briefly as she did so. Part of her knew she should be upstairs to double check everything, as was her usual habit. But a larger part of her kept reminding her that they’d opened the club without her for two years. They knew what they were doing – and her compulsion didn’t doubt that.

Without her usual busywork to keep her thoughts from stumbling over themselves though, she was at a bit of a loss.

The bickering with Kain had taken much of the weight out of her chest, but the massage and heat had left her languid. Combined with the accumulated nights without sleep… She was beginning to feel the weariness in her bones.

She ran her hands through her hair – it was almost dry, at least as much as toweling it ever got. Her feathers reappeared and she raised and lowered them as her fingers brushed the hair away from her face. Good enough. She wasn’t planning on making a public appearance tonight anyway. Kain was right about that much, she should take the night for herself.

Just the notion felt strange to her – in Ariella’s nest, sure, what else was she to do when not actively working, but here? Here her habit was to be in constant motion, to be preemptive about whatever might need her attention. It was odd to be home, but not busying herself. To most, being home meant relaxing, resting, but she’d always done the opposite, only resting when away from the nest and not responsible for everyone around her.

The faint strains of music caught her attention.

She turned her head, listening. The sound was coming from downstairs, it had to be. The wards that separated the two floors was warded to keep the sound of the show from penetrating the lower level.

Who was still downstairs?

Her bare feet padded along the tiled floor in the hallway as she sought out the source of the music. The closer she came to the Great Room, the clearer it became. A man’s voice, soft and low, the sound of a foot dully hitting a rug. The words sounded wrong, refusing to resolve themselves to meaning in her ears, until understanding turned the key. They were in the old language.

Naj?

If he was singing and dancing, then he must be feeling well. Music was as necessary to a serpent as breathing.

Nica paused at the edge of the Great Room, simply watching. Naj was beautiful in motion. The gauntness of his frame seemed lost behind the pulse of his aura. It swirled thick around him, emphasized in his hands as he formed each symbol carefully. It mingled with his voice on the air, body swaying to the beat his soles struck out. The song was almost familiar, something that hung on the tip of her tongue, but eluded her.

She moved into the space quietly, letting his aura flow against hers. It was peaceful, warm and inviting.

A small drum sitting at the end of one of the couches caught her eye and she smiled. Her heart ached to join him, but she was not certain which dance he was performing and the weariness was still drawing on her muscles.

She could, however, give him a beat. Nica settled near Naj on the floor, tucking the drum between her knees. After watching his feet a moment to catch the rhythm, she began to softly tap out the beat. As he continued to dance, her movements became more sure and stronger. She swayed as she played, letting the melody fill her. Without thinking, it began to spill out of her throat in wordless notes, letting her harmony twine with his song.

His mind wanted to stumble when the soft drumbeats began, but his feet would not let him. The song fell from his lips with the weight of years, the simple child’s melody too easy to forget. A soft thump of his heart chased his head from the dance, and with a smile, Naj turned on the next step that brought him up on his toes to face his eija’ramn.

What an odd mix she was. From the waist down, she was all serpent, red sarong falling open on one side to show a long line of tawny skin. Her legs’ grip on the drum showed the dancers’ habit of being ready to rise at any moment and join the dance. But her golden top brought out the raptor intensity in her eyes, and the cut left her shoulders free and clear for wings. Her voice was strong with the powerful lungs she’d need to survive long flights at high altitudes, but bent gently to simple nursery tune.

Seth simply didn’t know what to make of her.

Naj was ecstatic to dance to Nica’s drum. There was a rightness to singing with his eija’ramn, to shifting his feet to move where her beats led—even as she adjusted to play to his footfalls. It shouldn’t work, this seamless joining of disparate parts, but somehow among serpents it was always this way, and Naj’s heart soared with the pure joy of it. More than just the basic synergy of two artists musing and merging into a cohesive unit, this was something transcendent. It would be much the same when others joined the dance, unified under the strong heart of their eija’ramn.

A part of him wanted to go upstairs, to see his nestmates’ show in its completeness, now that the audiences’ aura could mingle with the dancers’ joy. But Naj was unwilling to break the magic of this moment just yet. The simple harmony of it was so beautiful and so peaceful, he wanted to stretch it and make it last.

He grew more confident as the song looped back to the chorus and he fell into the matching steps. Power began to flow with the words and gestures, whispers of the primal forces they named. LightDark. FireIce. AirWater. SpiritEarth. The names of the gods, hDaeos, were subtly different from the mundane elements of the same name, and the sound shifted the nature of all the surrounding lyrics. He could hear Nica adjusting along with him, and he dropped to more simple notes when he could hear her building something more complex. The give and take of the music was magical, and they worked well together, both functionally and emotionally. By the time the “song” came to its natural conclusion, they were both smiling and relaxed, but keyed into each other. If they so willed it, they could call up mountains, summon rainstorms, lighten the darkest night. In this simple melody, his ki’n had bowed to hers, had stepped into the circle of the nest she led. He was ready to dance for her.

Nica rolled her shoulders when they finished, feeling the elation that comes from a good impromptu merging of energies through music. It filled her head and heart like a warm syrup, heavy, thick and sweet. It was something she thought she had left behind at Ariella’s nest.

The first spark of hope lightened her heart. To be home, but still feel this heady connection with a fellow dancer? It was a high that she often mused was why serpents stayed banded together in nests.

A hand caressed the soft skin of the drum, watching him as she did so. His easy posture and eager light to his eye… He had only begun to dance. Her smile widened and she inclined her head slightly, shifting the drum. It was a subtle invitation to offer to drum for him if he wanted to dance again, a motion understood by all serpents.

He rose to the balls of his feet, letting himself stretch to his full height, arms overhead, a long long line as stretched as he could be. He released like a cut marionette, and rolled back up til his chin was up and his shoulders relaxed and back. He turned his body on a slight angle but kept his eyes locked on Nica. He gave a nod for her to begin and closed his eyes, ready to let her music seep into his limbs.

Her smile warmed as she watched him stretch, growing eager to see how he moved to a proper song. When he nodded, she began to pound out a simple enough beat, her voice taking a more lilting note to imitate the flute that was missing. It was a basic serpent style, but she’d build on it to add some speed and complexity, then give it a cool down to watch how he interpreted it into movement.

Naj had enjoyed the simple steps of the prim’narix, but the now the sound of challenge filled the drums, and the fire within him was eager to rise to it. He started slowly enough, hips sliding in elegant circles, back and forth in sultry movements. As he became more sure of which rhythms she was building, he rose up off his heels, letting his body sway with the rocking steps. He moved as if the air became thick around him, music flowing like water and pulling his body with the ebb and flow of the beats. As the beat began to pick up, he dropped down off his toes, the motion traveling up his legs into percussive drops of his hips. He moved in circles, letting his arms become the visual focus as he used the circling to get the feel of the shift in the music. As he came around front, he brought his arms together and separated them again in a new frame work, needing more time to suss out what Nica intended to do musically.

As he found an opening in the rhythm, he brought himself out of the circles and into a more complex step, focusing more on the feet than visually arresting arm work. This was the time to show off his dexterity and skill, to impress the audience with the talent of both dancer and musician. As he threw himself into the music, he forgot he was performing for the discerning eyes of only his eija. He could be in front of one or one thousand- when he was dancing, it didn’t matter. There was the drum, there was his feet, and there was anyone else he shared the music with. That was all. The audience would be drawn in or they would not, he could not move them anymore than he himself was moved, and he was expressing that joy in the purest way he knew how.

As the music exhausted itself and began to draw to its natural close, Naj drew his arms back into the performance. He began to step into the classic rei’ramn poses of story telling. He wasn’t dancing any tale in particular, simply choosing those that fit the moment, holding positions long enough for the eye to drink in the shape, then stepping through into through into the next pose. He slowed himself with the music, until his core simply swayed in the directions his arms were taking him. At this point, all experiencing the dance would be drained, and waiting to be released from its spell. He shaped the air now as it had shaped him earlier, cutting swathes and shapes as if directing spirits no one could see. He moved in the shapes of thanks and praise, giving the energy he had raised back into the earth, the dancers, the musicians and the audience, and ending with his face upraised and hands uplifted in an offering to the gods. He held that pose, heart racing to the last beat of the drum, where he then let himself sink to his knees, forehead pressing into the floor, palms stretched out before him. It was the dancers’ respite, eipratei, giving and accepting thanks for the dance. And recovering from it. The higher magics could leave the dancer laid out for days, connected to the earth and spirits around them, drawing in the energy spent, seeking balance. Naj would not need to rest for that long, after such a simple dance, but he did need a moment to compose himself before rising to face Nica.

Nica found herself drawn into his dance, altering some of the melody to better accommodate his movements and style. He was a wonderful dancer, precise and flowing. His movements hailed from a similar traditional style to the one she used. Though his body was still thin, it was clear that his heart had not forgotten the beat of a drum.

She recognized some of the movements his fingers made from rei’ramn that she’d performed with her family as a child, though time had blurred their meanings. When he finally sank into a resting pose, she bowed her head over her drum, offering her own silent thanks for the beauty of his dance.

It also gave her time to compose herself, to quell the prick of tears in her eyes. Perhaps it was merely her deep weariness, or perhaps it was the reminder of her lost family, but there was a gentle, pulsing ache in her chest.

When her eyes were clear, she raised her head, finding Naj still stretched out in rest.

She set the small drum to the side and smoothed her sarong across her thighs.

When he finally tilted his head to regard her, she gave him a warm smile. “That was beautiful, thank you.”

Naj lifted his head enough to acknowledge he was ready to be addressed. He was still deeply tired, more tired than he should have been from such easy dancing. Had he raised more energy than he’d thought? He hadn’t danced with his soul like that for quite some time. But he was keeping both of them from true rest the longer he lingered so he made the effort to lift himself from the floor. He swayed where he sat, and giving up, his shoulders sagged, and he smiled.

e’ramn, ei’ariyei.” When one dances, it blesses us all.

She bowed her head slightly at the old phrase. Her mother had been fond of it.

Nica leaned forward, one hand outstretched in offering. After such a connection, it seemed wrong not to be touching, to offer her energy, as little as it was to his obvious weariness.

I look forward to the chance to dance with you.” Her smile softened, feeling her own tiredness and making a decision. “But first, we should rest.”

I agree on both counts.”

He reached for her hand, arm feeling like lead. He’d definitely overdone it. But he didn’t regret it. Not one bit.

As his hand closed around hers, an electric jolt raced up his arm. It was nothing like the heat or the visions from before, but it rocked him all the same. He knew it now as the call of an eija, the dancemaster’s call to all that were her own. He drew a ragged breath, struggling to find balance in the power that surged through him. It felt good, once he overcame the shock of it, but swallowing it down had been difficult. And now that he had it, he didn’t want to let it go.

It will be several hours before anyone else comes down to sleep, yes?”

Nica nodded as she hummed her agreement. With a steadying breath, she took to her feet, using her hold on Naj to draw him up as well.

The last show ends around one, then cleaning the front of house takes almost another hour.” She paused only briefly to wonder if that was still the same, then dismissed the distraction.

And many will stay up, even when they come downstairs afterwards.”

He leaned into her, unable to remain upright without her. She likely knew this, just as she likely new he wouldn’t have the energy to keep himself warm either, but it was impolite to assume.

If I may, then, perhaps we might bed down together? A nest of two is always warmer than a nest of one.”

Nica chuckled softly, wrapping an arm around him as he swayed into her. “I would welcome the company.”

She moved them to her room, sweeping the tapestry aside with an easy movement. Now that sleep was so close at hand, her own tiredness was weighing heavily on her. She paused just inside the doorway to bank the lights, then sank into her bed with relief, beckoning Naj with a languid arm to join her.

If I warm you too much, don’t hesitate to wake me. I’m a light sleeper, but fall back asleep just as easily.” Her hand smoothed along his shoulder, movements automatic as sleep clouded her mind.

The most he could manage was a low murmur of sound as he leaned into her touch. He was nearly dead on his feet– the day hadn’t been that full, had it?

Let’s see. Spending the night spinning il’li-ramn, the morning drowning in visions, the afternoon as a serpent and the evening in communion with h’Daeos and your eija’ramn. No, I can’t fathom why you’d be this tired.

But Naj was too tired to care, half asleep on his feet already. If the room hadn’t been so familiarly serpent, he might have stumbled or hesitated. But the big nest of blankets was soft and inviting, holding close the scents and comfort of the many arms that had slept there. It had a cold, slightly empty smell, but it was the kind of empty of a sky barely brushed with dawn, the pause between a long night and budding day. Somehow, Naj found this promise of life more comfortable than if the nest had been overflowing with it, and he sank into sleep almost as quickly as he’d sank into the blankets.

As she felt the warmth of his body touch hers, she curled into it without thinking, wrapping one arm around his waist. When she felt skin on skin, she could feel her muscles give up what little tension they still held.

She inhaled the comforting scents of serpent, warmth, spice, and sweat and was asleep almost instantly.

Previous: Chapter 8, part 4                                                    Next: Chapter 9, part 2

Chapter 8, part 4

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

Previous: Chapter 8, part 3                                                          Next: Chapter 9, part 1

Chapter 8, part 3

Nica paused at the base of the stairs to take in the Great Room and kitchen beyond. It was a relief to be home.

She watched as Emily handed Rowan a bowl of something she’d heated up and the small smile they exchanged told her that they still weren’t dating yet. At the table, Marie was animatedly chatting at Nat over their plates. Lena was still fishing around in the fridge for her own meal, her long, white leopard’s tail swishing happily from side to side.

Rowan’s expression lit up as he noticed Nica’s approach to the kitchen. She smiled in response, opening her posture to accept the hug she knew was coming.

“Hello, Ro.”

“Hey, Nica, glad to see you.” It was cute, watching him try to juggle his bowl as he pulled back. Emily was giggling in the background as she leaned against the counter to wait for him.

“It’s good to see you too.” She let her gaze slip over each of the dancers present and her smile grew. “And good to be home.”

She could feel the emotion relax, as if a collective sigh had pushed through the room.

Lena peered around Ro, a block of cheese in hand. “For good?”

Nica nodded and the tension unwound further. “For good.”

Marie cheered from the table, then promptly burst into giggles. Nica shook her head and moved past Ro and Lena to fish around for some cheese and crackers for herself. It would be a small meal, but she didn’t feel overly hungry after dealing with Dev.

The group moved on from the moment, Ro and Em taking a couch and falling into a heavy conversation. Lena joined Nat and Marie at the table, where they kept breaking into small spurts of giggles – it sounded as if they were quoting a movie they’d all seen recently.

Nica leaned against the counter as she nibbled her dinner. It really was nice to be home, to have the motions of the nest move around her again in comfortable waves. She was surprised it had been Lena to ask the question they were all afraid to ask though – when had her shy little snow leopard become so brave? It was depressing to realize how much she’d missed. Even as everything stayed the same, everything changed. Everything kept moving forward and she… She hadn’t been here to move forward with it.

She finished the cracker in her hand and put the remnants away before retreating from the kitchen. She’d lost what bit of appetite she’d had.

He should move forward.

Naj stood in the middle of the hallway, knowing he should take the few short steps that would carry him the rest of the way into the main room. It was foolish, but the sounds of laughter and happy chatter had drawn him up short. Everyone seemed so at ease with each other– and why shouldn’t they? They were family. And he was not. And he knew it.

But standing here wouldn’t change that, and he knew that as well. Still, it was so tempting to just curl up in the shadows and listen, enjoying the nearness of everyone’s friendliness without being subjected to it.

Travis stretched as he emerged from his room, wearing a clean tee and jeans. He tilted his head as he spied Naj ahead, simply standing in the hallway. A grin split his face and he strode up behind the smaller man, clapping him on the shoulder. “You didn’t have to wait on me.”

If he hadn’t been so intent on stillness just the moment before, Naj’s fighting instincts would have undoubtedly taken over. Even still, the fraction of hesitation before action hadn’t kept Naj from gripping the wolf’s wrist and tensing for the throw. Damn. He really needed to work on that. Perhaps he should encourage everyone to keep sneaking up on him until he grew accustomed to it?

He awkwardly transformed the grip into a pat, voice only slightly shaky. “I preferred to. I, uh… I’m still not totally comfortable in the kitchen on my own.”

“Huh?” Travis glanced down, then ahead. After a moment, he laughed, squeezing Naj’s shoulder. “You wouldn’t be alone, There’s already people in the kitchen.”

He paused, then inhaled deeply, reading the room beyond by scent. “Let’s see… Lena’s is easy, she’s the soft floral. The spicy lemon is Marie, the buttery sweet one is Nat,” he inhaled again, “The woody one is Ro, Em is a really dark sweet flower. And…” He frowned slightly, rocking his head slightly as he thought it over. “The other one’s kinda spicy – oh! Nica must have just left.”

Having figured it out, he grinned down at Naj.

Naj obligingly sniffed the air, even though he knew his sense of smell wouldn’t be as developed. Closing his eyes didn’t help much, but he thought caught at least the spicy scent the wolf was referencing. Mostly, all he could smell was Travis, an earthy musk. It surely didn’t help that Naj was covered in the wolf’s soap himself. Ah well. He knew his eija by aura well enough, and if he was really curious about her scent, well, surely there would be more time one on one later.

Naj opened his eyes again and offered Travis an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry, my friend, my nose is no match for yours.”

Travis’s grin widened. “Yep! Hard to beat a wolf nose.” He shook Naj’s shoulder jovially, then pulled him forward. “Don’t worry, I can’t dance to save my life.”

“Indeed?”

He let Travis’s good humor wash over him, wrapping it around him like a blanket. He could do this, he could. He had already at least met everyone that Travis had named, and with everyone busy eating, surely it would keep the attention from focusing too much on himself, right?

Deep down, Naj knew better. He knew dancers, and no matter what breed, dancers loved to gossip. Until he was no longer “the new guy”, everyone would be eager for whatever tidbits they could get.

No time like the present. He let Travis’s urgings pull them into the Great Room and the waiting crowd.

Nica paused in the hallway as she passed Marie and Nat’s room to give a quick look over the sketches there. She had always loved Marie’s style of drawing, and while she was sad to notice that all sketches including Jax had been taken down, she wasn’t surprised. More surprising was how few new ones there were.

She continued down the hallway to find the door to her room closed. She hadn’t been the one to close it and wondered if that was Kain’s doing. She pushed the door fully open, drawing the tapestry across instead. She’d always preferred the illusion of privacy, while still allowing the nest access to her.

Her room was still warm and inviting, even after two years. Each wall was covered with tapestries, some bearing symbols for peace and hope. A few bore symbols similar to the one she wore around her waist – acknowledgments of Fate’s design, and the hope that such offerings were enough to keep the devious Goddess’s focus away. While everyone must follow the path Fate laid, having her direct attention was rarely a good thing in the old tales.

Overall the room was a riot of reds and oranges and golds, though the overall effect was soothing and not overwhelming. Even the ceiling was draped in a darker tapestry embroidered with the signs of the heavens, so the room felt smaller and more intimate.

Her tired eyes were drawn to the corner of the room where a pallet of blankets and pillows lay. Nica made a face, realizing that it should be laundered before she attempted to sleep tonight. The last thing she wanted was to collapse into her nest and have a cloud of dust choke her.

On the wall to the right was a large wooden vanity. The surface of which was full of statues and incense. As she drew closer, she frowned slightly, running a finger along the flat surface. No dust.

She rubbed her fingers together, gazing unseeing at a small figurine. Someone must have dusted the room fairly recently, but who?

The only reasonable answer was Kain, but somehow, she couldn’t picture the large man carefully moving and dusting the space where she kept her small tokens. It was both soothing and a reminder of how wrong everything had been.

Nica carefully untied and folded the crimson scarf about her waist. She laid it with the Ksm symbol facing upwards, smoothing a hand over it with a small smile as she thought about Kis wrapping it around her.

She looked up to see the rest of her vanity. The mirror had small symbols carved into it, designed to keep anyone from peeking in on her through it or sending negativity to her. Once she would have thought them superstition, but with all she’d seen in her life… Well, right now they were reassuring.

Stuck in the frame of the mirror were pictures. Many were black and white, some taken while photography was still a slightly blurred, imperfect science. Still, the reminders of the smiling faces were all she needed to fill in the blanks. She could hear their individual laughter, see the sun shine on copper skin that faded to black scales. The faint caress of a loving hand as someone softly hummed.

Her vision blurred and she forced her eyes to brighter pictures, newer ones. These were mostly stuck to the walls around the mirror, too many for frames. In one, a younger, more freckle faced Marie held up one of her first paintings she’d made in summer camp. In another, a group of dancers from Ariella’s nest grinned for the camera, costumes blending into one chaotic, beautiful mess. Another one showed her own nest several years ago, and her smile faded slightly to see Jax holding Marie’s hand in the group photo. In another, she and Kis posed cheek to cheek – Nica thought that was taken after Kis’s first performance with Ariella’s nest.

And so many others, with so many more people that had come into her life… And so many who had gone. She touched a group photo that included Bastian, then turned with a sigh. Death wasn’t the only way to burn a bridge.

Such morbid thoughts for what should have been a joyous return home. Nica pinched the bridge of her nose. Joyous return… Who was she kidding? The nest was happy to have her back, but she’d only agreed to return because everything wasn’t right. An unpredictable serpent wielding Fate only knew what sort of magic – and that wasn’t even accounting for the demon threatening to knock on their door.

She’d returned to a nest on the brink. And most of them didn’t even know. What if disaster was all that was left? What if Fate was finally taking her price for their previous years of happiness?

When she opened her eyes again, a citrine statue of Li’Daea caught her eye and she sighed again. Squeezing her eyes shut, she forced herself to take another long breath and blow it out, then did it again. And again.

Thoughts like that were unbecoming. Especially if she was supposed to lead this dance. She could only hear Nema’s voice too well, reminding her that Fate would tighten the threads as she would, we could only dance to the notes we were allowed to hear.

Sometimes looking at the statue that had once been her cousin’s, she swore she could still feel Nema’s hand in her hair, smoothing over her feathers. It was her song she heard when she fell asleep. And it was her words of wisdom that still guided her.

She rubbed the back of her hand across her damp eyes. She couldn’t rest yet and she didn’t have time to mourn. Nica had wasted too many years of her life mourning. There were those still living that needed her.

She would take her shower and rejoin the nest.

“Naj!” Marie’s voice broke through the softer babble of the group. Nat smiled and continued eating, but her other hand was on Marie’s wrist, patting it lightly. Lena beamed as the pair of them walked into the kitchen. Travis knew his answering smile was sappy, but whatev. He did really like Lena, and she liked him, though he knew she liked Chris more. It didn’t bother him, the pair of them were cute together, and they all had plenty of good fun together.

“I guess I’m chopped liver.” Travis cracked the joke as he leaned over to ruffle Lena’s hair and she giggled.

From the couch, Em laughed too and he grinned. She pointed her fork at him, “I’d say you’re something a lot lighter than liver.”

“Smells about as good though.” Ro wrinkled his nose with feigned distaste, though his own grin ruined it. He glanced over at Naj, deliberately ignoring Travis’s sound of protest, “Glad to see you again, how’s it going?”

“Yeah,” Emily added, scooping another bite up from her bowl. “How’d you like watching practice?”

Naj was saved from having to follow Travis around like a young pup by Rowan and Emily engaging him. He gave them both a grateful smile and leaned up against the arm of the couch across the way. It let him both keep an eye on Travis and appear more relaxed as he spoke with them– it was the best he could do until it felt truly genuine. He did like the pair of them– they were subdued, like Nat. He waved to her and Marie before giving his current conversation his full attention.

“It was quite a show, to be sure.”

He could feel a distinctly uncobra-like blush creep up his neck at the thought of certain acts, but he doubted present company would comment.

Emily laughed and Rowan nodded. His eyes darted to Emily, enjoying the easy way she flicked a lock of stray hair from her eyes. Ro averted his gaze quickly, returning to Naj. The flush of rose wasn’t too obvious against the pale olive of the new dancer’s skin, but it was a cue Ro was used to watching for.

“It’s less overwhelming when you’re not the sole audience.” Ro took a thoughtful bite and looked back to Em when she added, “It’s also easier when you have your own act to focus on. Sometimes I still get awestruck by Gwen when she takes the stage.”

She shivered lightly and Rowan nodded.

Naj’s flush rose higher as he remembered losing his seat earlier.

“I’m, uh, glad I’m not the only one…”

“Not at all.” Ro shrugged a shoulder, setting his empty bowl behind him on the counter. “It usually takes new dancers a little while to adjust – from what I hear, even dancers with a lot of experience are a little taken aback by our nest and club.”

Nat’s voice joined the conversation as she rose from the table with her empty plate. “It’s the setting as well as the fact that we’re such a mixed bunch. With a wider range of strengths and abilities, there always seems to be something new… And the club encourages showcasing those skills in a very energetic way.”

Emily nodded, turning to glance at Nat as the woman rinsed her dish and placed it in the dishwasher. Nat straightened, rubbing a hand along her soft cream pants. “The Ikelo still give me pause when they take the stage, and I’ve been here the longest save for Kain or Nica.”

At the mention of the twins, both Ro and Em shuddered. Rowan laughed, handing his bowl to Nat when she reached for it. “I don’t know anyone that those two don’t unsettle.”

“Kain.” It was Marie’s bubbly giggle that broke in this time and Nat smiled at the sound as she nodded.

“That’s because nothing rattles Kain.” Em mused.

Their chatter was comfortable, but Naj found he had nothing to add. He didn’t remember what face– or faces, rather– to associate with Ikelo. And Kain… He could listen to stories about Kain all day, but he wasn’t quite ready to comment on the man that intrigued him so.

“Mm, Nica comes close.” Nat moved back to the table to collect Marie’s plate. Marie laughed again as she added, “I think Kain rattles Nica more than the other way around.”

“Well, I did say close.” Nat’s expression softened as she smiled down at Marie.

“Do you think it’s a personality thing or a being in charge thing?” Ro asked no one in particular, though he was looking in Nat’s direction.

The slim woman shrugged.

“I think it’s a why is this a group discussion thing.” The rich, rolling voice held laughter as it broke through the chatter. Grins broke out as Kain entered the room. He gave everyone an assessing gaze, then shook his head. “Dancers – a rotten group of gossips, the lot of you.”

Naj froze at the voice behind him, going completely serpent still. He knew that Kain was laughing, knew that the other dancers were still smiling, but Naj just couldn’t shake the feeling of raw power that radiated from the large man. How was everyone else unaffected? Could they not smell the rich blend of herbs, feel the steady heat of sun-warmed rock– it was nearly as strong as it had been in the garden. Whatever blends Kain mixed in the laundry room, it was potent, and heady.

But the other dancers carried on laughing and teasing, as if their eijye were just another mate to gossip with.

Nat laughed, pointing a utensil at him as she moved back to the dishwasher. “As if you don’t encourage our gossip.”

“Me?” He raised a hand to his chest, mocking. “Hardly. I try to mind my business and you all sit around speculating. Surely you have better things to do.”

As if by cue, Em and Ro slipped away, leaving their dishes on the counter for Nat. They waved to everyone with smiles, then exited past Kain, who was still shaking his head. Lena left next, wiggling her fingers at Naj as she passed.

Without Lena to keep him at the table, Travis rose to rifle through kitchen cabinets. “Hey, Naj, you want cereal? I think I’m going to make cereal.”

Kain snorted. “Cereal hardly needs making.”

“Yeah, well, It’s my favorite type of cooking.” Travis laughed, mostly at himself. “’Sides, we’re out of cold pizza.”

A sigh slipped from Kain and he shook his head. He glanced to Naj, “If you’d rather have something not overly sugary, there’s plenty of fruit, cheese, and other snacks.”

“I’m fine to have whatever is already being made, thank you.” He gave Kain a small smile as he pushed off the couch to head into the kitchen. He remembered Marie’s comments about Travis making cereal the night before, and it hadn’t seemed to have left too much of a mess. It shouldn’t be a problem for them to eat and clean up before Travis was needed for the show, and it should keep Kain content with the state of his kitchen.

Kain raised an eyebrow as the serpent walked away, then took the opportunity to cast his eye over the dancer’s aura with his back turned. He seemed calm enough now, without the warm flustered edge he’d had near the showers. Interesting.

He shrugged as he caught Nat’s eye. The woman raised an eyebrow at him in response and he sighed softly. At least she wasn’t likely to cause trouble. She smiled and turned her head back to Marie.

Kain continued through to the other hallway, padding softly down the long length towards the open style showers.

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