Character Bios: Lena

After Maleo, I think it’s time for a sweetheart. 🙂

As always, you can find this on the character bios page. If you have any more questions about Lena, or suggestions on who I should draw next, drop them in the comments.


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.”


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.

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

Chapter 7 part 2

In which Nica finally takes the stage.

For the next song, the guitar cued before the dancers appeared on stage. It was only as it started to reach a fever pitch that Emily and Lena stalked onto stage in matching black, semi-sheer halter tops and pants. Their hip scarves were a deep black with deep red gems that would catch the light. As Nica recognized the song as “Vampyrica Erotica”, the mimicked blood drops made more sense. Nica frowned slightly. She didn’t mind the taboo nature of the song, but any mention of Satan almost always brought the fanatics knocking and she didn’t like bringing that negativity down on her nest. But she preferred her dancers pick their own music, so she would deal with whatever minor inconvenience the choice brought.

Nica did wonder if this was the dance Emily had just mentioned – if it was, it was odd that they would have put it in the line-up with the dancers still so unsure of it. As the driving beat began, she kept an eye to their movements with a slightly more critical eye.

Naj felt inverted.

While Naj himself had never understood the The Church and its new religion, it was impossible not to know something of its doctrines. It had rolled over the world like an unstoppable juggernaut, driving even the Dai out of power, or at least, out of obvious power. After the wars and the burnings, everyone who survived adopted enough of the doctrines to function in society, driving the already secretive shapeshifters groups deeper into hiding. Celebrating such a hateful time, such music was an …odd choice, to say the least.

He turned to Nica for answers, his frown only deeping as he took in her own. Their eija wasn’t happy with the piece either. He couldn’t quite read her emotions– she was too intently focused on the dance itself, not her own personal reaction to it– but the general “no” was clear. Still, she let them continue, so Naj sat back and watched, curious to see how it would all play out.

The girls mimicked the drums with their hips, focusing the audience on the glinting drops of blood and what was promised beyond. The two of them wove a seductive dance, designed to entice the audience even as the lyrics were designed to draw on subjects that should repel them. The movements drew the audience in and then the girls would switch, using aggressive movements to push the audience away. It was an intense dance, the base of which Nica remembered helping them build, though they had used a different song at the time.

Her frown grew when she noticed a misstep, not a large one, but it didn’t quite fit the flow of the dance. She suspected they had added it to better fit the current song, but the odd pelvic thrust that followed it the second time nearly threw off the rhythm they’d been building.

Nica caught Emily’s eye – it was clear that the girl was frustrated and looking to her. Nica raised her hand, halting the music. Travis flooded the stage with better light in response.

Naj blinked in the sudden light and silence. He’d been so focused on the dance, trying to place exactly what was wrong with it– it was familiar, but not, odd, but not, fitting but somehow just …wrong. He scrubbed at his eyes, feeling utterly drained. If the goal of the dance was to unsettle, they’d certainly succeeded.

Nica stood and approached the stage, though she didn’t step up yet. “Can I see that last bit again?”

Dutifully, both of them repeated the steps, but without the build up to prep them for it, it looked as out of place as Nica had though. Neither of them looked happy to do it and she couldn’t quite fathom why they’d branched out to include it.

She hummed softly as she watched, then motioned for them to do it again. Finally she simply asked, “Why that particular motion?”

Emily and Lena exchanged looks, then shrugged. It was Lena who sighed and admitted, “Dev thought it would make the dance sexier.”

“Dev should stick to the books and leave the stage to the dancers.” The words came out sharper than she’d meant, but it was an old argument between the pair of them. Dev knew sex, Nica knew dancing. Still, the admission made both girls smile, driving away some of the downtrodden feel to their auras. Fate only knew how many times Dev had henpecked the pair of them over this dance.

“And the song change? That was also Dev?”

They nodded and this time it was Emily who added, “Dev didn’t think the old song pushed enough buttons. She suggested we just change out songs and it seemed easier at the time.”

Nica hummed again. That sounded like Dev, to take the easier route. “Mhmm. Well, remember that what sounds easy in practice often isn’t – With a song it’s much easier to simply start from scratch. Remember, l’mn esen’ta l’cre,  music are like lovers, each one wants to be special from the rest. So we start with the original song that this was designed for. We’ll work from there to make it something Dev won’t throw us all out for, alright?”

Watching Nica work was like watching the tide. Her easy command did much to soothe this agitation, and the other dancers’ as well. Her confidence spread through the nest like a ripple, easy and natural as water. He wasn’t certain how he felt about her comments on Dev, but he was willing to admit he didn’t know much about nest dynamics yet. It wasn’t unheard of for a nest leader to butt heads with village leaders who butted in where they didn’t belong. And everyone knew the more things changed… Best to watch and learn.

Nica moved as she spoke, lighting the three steps up to take the stage with the girls. They moved back to flank her instinctively, each one beginning to warm with excitement. It was contagious and soon Nica found herself grinning in return.

“Let’s have…” Her brows narrowed, not remembering the original song after so many years. Nica glanced to Emily, who called out, “Incubus Sucubus ‘Vampyrella’.”

“Alright,” Her attention fell back to the two girls. “What I want is for both of you to start the dance as is, remember to feel the music, let it move you. I’ll jump in here and there, but mostly I want to watch how you move to this music before we make any changes.”

Nica raised a hand, studying the postures each girl took. Without the intro of stalking on stage, they’d both lowered their heads and shifted their weight to one foot so the other could pose on point. It was a good posture and she suspected it came from the original version of the dance.

She twisted her hand, letting it fall as the music began.

This time, as the girls danced, Nica occasionally paced around them, seeing the piece from all sides. The pair of them ignored her, falling back into the easy habit of years before. As they came to the part where the dance began to fall out of sync with the music, Lena glanced to Nica, then Em. Em stopped, and so did Lena.

Nica held a hand up and the music stopped as well. “It’s a good start… I’d like to make an adjustment to the opening posture, but keep the song essentially the same – this time I’ll show you what I would do with the trouble spot and we can take it from there, alright?”

As the girls nodded, Nica moved back to the front of the stage, facing them. Normally she didn’t like dancing without a stretch first, but this particular dance wasn’t too strenuous – especially after Ariella’s demanding practices. This was positively languid in comparison. She settled for stretching her arms over her head and following the stretch down the length of her body.

When she was ready, she lifted her hip and framed it with her hands. The girls mirrored her posture and she was pleased to see that the angle of the bodies drew the eyes to the glittering jewels. The dancers became background, so that the focus was entirely on those drops of blood. A good place to start.

Nica nodded and the music began again.

She held the first counts as the music started, leaving a feeling of anticipation building until the first beat fell and so did her hip.

Even though the dance stayed essentially the same through the beginning, Emily and Lena watched Nica for the cues that would change the routine. They took their movements from hers rather than from memory and it thrilled Nica to see that they hadn’t lost the habit. It built her confidence in them, and in return, they took theirs from her. She gave herself over to the music, letting it speak through her, and trusting that her dancers would follow.

The change was immediate. Not just the change in song –the two were actually very similar, to his ears anyways- but the entire feel of the piece and dancers shifted. Nica was at home on that dias, and she owned every inch of the space she moved through. The other girls had seemed at the mercy of the music before, and lyrically that was a very disturbing song to be at the mercy of. Here, the words gave more power to the dancers, and they used that power to weave a spell over the audience. Yes, it was promising pain, but a beloved pain, one to be desired, inexorable. That was a feeling Naj knew very well.

This song was a little more sedate than the last, but Nica built the power and hunger that was lacking in the other dance, letting her hips roll and carrying the motion up into her chest until it ended in her neck being bared. At parts, she raised her hands in a classic pose, wrists crossed high above her head as she rose up on the balls of her foot, exaggerating her undulations before sweeping into a wide and low bow that ended with her on one knee. She returned to dropping her hip while arching her back, then sweeping back up into the main movement of the song. Somehow the movements were both violent and sensual, designed to fill the audience with foreboding and desire.

As the music finally stopped, she dropped her hands to frame her hips again.

She let the music fade completely from the air, savoring the echo in her own pulsing blood. Nica finally rose in a languid motion, feeling strangely lazy after the sensuality of the dance. The other dancers stood as well, tell-tale smiles already in place.

Nica couldn’t help but smile back. “That felt better?”

Emily’s smile split into a grin. “Miles.”

“And it won’t be any trouble following it?”

They glanced at each other, then shook their heads.

“Alright then. If you can drill it enough to have it down by tonight, then that can replace the previous act, but otherwise, we’ll find something to fill the slot. Don’t worry over it.”

It was Lena who spoke up, glancing to Emily for agreement. “I think we can have it ready.”

“Totally. It isn’t that different and it definitely feels more natural.” Their voices faded as they stepped offstage together, already lost in their thoughts of the new performance.

Nica smiled, then stepped off the stage herself. She’d thought about calling to them to let her know if they needed any more help, but didn’t. Emily had already made it clear she was willing to ask for it if she needed it. As Nica sat again, she saw Gwen looking to her expectantly from the wings. The tigress was perfectly poised as ever and Nica nodded to her. It was a little gesture, but the fact that she had still looked to Nica before she took the stage was comforting. It was Gwen’s own way of welcoming her back. For the usually stoic tigress, it said quite a lot.

Nica settled back into her seat, feeling a sense of peace steal over her.

 Previous: Chapter 7, part 1                                         Next: Chapter 7, part 3

Chapter 7 part 1

In which Naj is introduced to a wide variety of dancing.

Coming down from the garden stairs, Nica spotted movement in the scaffolding just above the stage. Travis was realigning lighting and straightening cords along the heavy beams. She wondered if he had only just woken up to take care of it, but let the thought go. He was working on it and that was what mattered.

She hadn’t realized her steps had slowed to watch the pup. Naj had slowed as well and she took the opportunity to gesture to the man on the catwalk. “That’s Travis, he does a lot of the lighting for our shows. If you have any interest in learning to do that, he’s actually a good teacher for the technical aspects of stage work.”

Nica didn’t add that it was one of the few areas in which Travis showed any discipline or gravity. She liked that the pup was light-hearted, it helped boost the whole nest.

Travis. The wolf. He was one of the dancers Naj was finding it easier to remember. Probably because of his own time in the rafters. Perhaps he would have an affinity for the work up here as well as the wolf.

“I just might have an interest, at that. a’parn’ei.”

He eyed the metal walkways, trying to connect this perspective with the much lower vantage point he’d had as a serpent. It was disconcerting, to be both familiar and unfamiliar with the space, but as far as he could tell, it would offer neither help nor hindrance to him, so he let it go.

As they moved further downstairs, Nica took advantage of the tight space to lean in to Naj as she spoke. “The stage is open for general practice until three. Most people will work on the dances they intend to perform that night, but it’s also an excellent time to test a performance on the stage to see how it fits the space. When someone is working with the lights, it can also be a good time to see if you’ll need any special consideration with the lighting for your performance.”

She held the handrail as she stepped down to the second balcony, leaning against it as she stood a moment to consider the stage. No one was currently dancing, as an impromptu meeting seemed to be happening in the center. Nica fell silent as she watched the exchange, which mostly seemed to consist of Emily patiently saying something, to Marie bouncing in place as she animatedly talked with her hands in return. Lena and Nat were watching the conversation silently, following the points back and forth as if it were a tennis match.

The group broke apart when Carrie interceded. The short blonde’s charming smile never wavered and whatever she said left the group laughing as they moved off stage.

Knowing the fox, it was probably at her husband’s expense. Matthew’s good natured scowl as he joined Carrie on stage confirmed Nica’s theory. The wolf seemed to enjoy being overly serious and she suspected he did it more now to play up being Carrie’s straightman than from any actual dour mood on his own part. As the pair of them posed in various places on stage and began discussing where to start their dance, Nica turned her attention back to the serpent at her side.

“My favorite part of practice time is simply watching everyone. I often will sit at one of the tables and offer suggestions, since I can offer the audience’s viewpoint. It also gives me an idea of what sort of show we’ll be putting on at any given time.” She glanced at the clock over the bar, nodding when she confirmed it was only a little after noon. “I’d actually like to watch the rest of practice today to see where the nest stands currently… You’re welcome to join me if you like.”

He’d followed along after Nica in attentive silence, taking in both her talking points and the interactions on the stage below. He listened to both with his usual careful assessment, tucking away any and all information that might be useful later. He wasn’t able to overhear much from this distance, but even the way the dancers played off one another was worth noting.

But then Nica was talking again and he shook himself from his distant and neutral headspace, doing his best to actively soak in the warmth around him. Even without any dancing going on, the Three Pillars radiated ki’n the same way that Kain’s garden exuded sun-drenched days, and it was not long before Naj found himself grinning in excitement. Especially when Nica invited him to watch their nest dance.

A’parn, eija. I would like that very much.”

She nodded with a smile. “I thought you might.”

Seized with good will, Naj reached out to brush Nica’s hand. He was thoroughly enjoying the casual familiarity of belonging to a nest again, and moreover, the physical touch was immensely helpful in keeping him grounded.

Nica was surprised by the touch, but welcomed it, opening her hand to entwine them together.

When they reached the main floor, Nica smiled to see Ro appear from behind a curtain, pulling out a step ladder to reach one of the top corners. Clearly someone had been careless, as the corner was flapping uselessly away from its usual point of attachment. He took a needle and quickly began to whipstitch it back in place. She was glad to see it was Ro, that meant it would look good when he was finished. Rowan was excellent when it came down to attention to detail, though she wasn’t sure how much of that was his own natural disposition and how much of it was habit picked up from the artist Emily.

Nica led Naj towards the stage, picking a table that was closer to the front than the back, but not directly front and center. Carrie paused when she spotted her, her blue eyes lighting up as she grinned and offered a small wave of her hand. Nica smiled back and nodded. Matthew simply nodded in return, but she could see the set of his shoulders ease back as he relaxed.

She pulled two chairs off the table, setting them so they would be facing the stage, view unobstructed. Before Nica could settle into one of them, Emily was there, a tight smile on her red lips and her blue eyes glittering in the shifting overhead lights. Nica wrapped her in a hug, one hand smoothing along her shoulder to ease her overwhelmed emotions. She could feel the push against her own aura, the tight threads of anxiety vibrating, then relaxing and vanishing. Emily melted into the hug, her chin tucked over Nica’s shoulder. While they were almost the same height, the leopard seemed so much smaller as she clung to Nica.

When she finally pulled away, she dabbed just under her eyes, careful not to smudge her make-up. Her smile widened to take in both Naj and Nica, “You going to watch practice today?”

Nica nodded and Emily nodded back, though a little too quickly. She wasn’t usually an overly emotional girl, which made Nica wonder what had been going on with her while she’d been gone. Simply the ambient stress of the nest or more? Nica made a mental note to bring it up with Kain as Em started speaking again.

“Good, I was hoping you would, Lena and I have a dance that we can’t get right, I was hoping you could point out where we’re going wrong.”

“Of course.” Nica gave her a reassuring smile as she squeezed her shoulder. “I’ll offer some advice today and if you still feel unsure of it, then tomorrow we can spend more time working through it together.”

The promise of a tomorrow did exactly what Nica had hoped. The lingering tenseness in Em’s aura shifted, the overall tone smoothing out as she relaxed. “Alright, thanks.” Emily glanced back to Naj and smiled, then she moved away to where Lena was waiting.

Something in Naj uncoiled as he watched Nica with her dancer. Because it was clear that Emily was Nica’s dancer, and had needed her eija’ramn’s guidance badly. Their conversation was casual enough, but the way the leopard’s aura clung to her eija’s, the thin and overstretched quality to it… There was more to reading emotion than the feelings they conveyed. Emily’s aura wasn’t accustomed to moving in this way, and it showed in how it stuck and snagged in places. It wasn’t unlike a feline shifter to be a bit distant, more likely to be loners, but…

Nica was clearly the keystone of this group, the thing that held it all together. Without her, they were still a family, but under the watchful eye of their eija’ramn, they were a dance troupe. Naj didn’t have to experience that reassurance first hand to know that it would be available to him, and he took comfort in the sense of home that surrounded him. This was a nest, and he belonged. He was now more eager than before to hear the beat of the music, feel the heat of the lights, and experience the show in a way he never could simply watching from above.

Seth was so relieved he almost spoke his fervent FINALLY! aloud.

Nica settled in her chair, looking over as Naj did the same. Whatever she’d been about to say was derailed by the overhead lights flashing off, then back on.

She leaned over to quietly explain, “The flashing lights mean we’re about to start a rehearsal piece, potentially several in a row – we don’t often do complete run-throughs of the night’s show, as we put on several a night, but sometimes we do a few in a set if we need to see how the songs pace together.”

Naj simply nodded and took his seat, facing the stage without a word. He would not interrupt this for the world. Intellectually, he knew this was merely a practice, nothing serious, but he still brought to it every ounce of gravity and respect he would for any performance. These were his nestmates, and how their footfalls sounded, his heart would follow.

Travis flashed another light to signal he was ready and the music started with a jaunty beat as Abba’s “Does Your Mother Know” filled the air around them. Matthew and Carrie started at opposite ends of the stage, each tapping one foot in time to the music, before Carrie started across the stage determinedly. The style was a mixture of swing and disco, with Matthew twirling Carrie from one end of the stage to the other as she pursued him. It was an excellent act to start a show with, as it held elements of playfulness and skill.

Nica approved of the choice, though she hadn’t see this particular dance and song set, but the style was typical of Matthew and Carrie. The couple worked well with one another and their chemistry shone on stage. At one point he flipped her high in the air, spinning a complete circle before catching her and dancing away. It was an impressive acrobatic start to the night’s show and its energy would carry the audience well into the next song.

His nestmates did not disappoint. The beat was driving, the energy of their movements were captivating, and though it wasn’t what he was used to, Naj enjoyed the performance immensely. It would take some adjusting, but he knew that from his morning with Marie. At least with Matthew and Carrie, the blatant sexuality was toned down a bit. That was quite a relief. With any luck, the fiery fox would be the exception rather than the rule.

The two vanished from the stage as Kain wheeled his engine for the next act out from behind the curtain. Nica gave a sharp burst of laughter before holding her hand over her mouth. This was one of her favorite burlesque risqué dances. Primarily because Kain put such mirth into the movements, it was hard not to love it. He already wore his costume for the act:a ragged t-shirt and holey jeans, though still barefoot – not many dancers wore shoes on the stage.

Just as the light pinpointed down to a single spotlight, Oingo Boingo’s “Wild Sex (in the Working Class)” came rolling through the speakers. He began miming work on the machine, rubbing down some parts and pulling on knobs or levers. As the lyrics started, he lip synched with it, something that could be jarring to someone who knew his much deeper voice. As the driving beat started he began to work the motion of his actions throughout his entire body, until the insinuations and euphemisms came through the lyrics – at which point he hoisted himself up onto the machine block, pantomiming sexual thrusts in various positions. All while maintaining the illusion of working the machine with his hands.

At one point as he slid down the block, his shirt caught and ripped off as he dismounted. “Thinking of you” left him pointing and winking into the audience, something that never failed to result in squeals of delight. Another dismount left his pants joining his shirt hanging from a hook on the machine. His black thong was nearly impossible to determine against the dark hue of his skin and when he ended the song draped on his back over the machine, one knee was bent to keep the illusion of nudity.

Nica shook her head as he flipped off the prop a final time. He bowed and flashed a sharp white grin before pushing the machine block offstage.

Naj could only stare as muscles rippled beneath dark skin. He’d been confused but intrigued by the engine block– dances done with props were some of the serpent style’s most impressive–and the feeling had only grown as the dance began. But as it had progressed…

Marie’s advances had been nothing like this. Her energy had pounded at him, fierce and relentless. Kain’s movements were no less expressive, but Naj felt less pursued and more… tantalized. As the clothing came off, the feeling of promises unfulfilled grew. Kain somehow stayed completely untouchable, even while laying himself bare. But the unspoken illusion that someone, somewhere, might lay their hands over every inch of that shining ebony flesh… Naj shivered with delight, eyes locked on the stage.

When Kain collapsed over his block, Naj felt himself just as spent, though he’d never himself moved. The dance had drawn him along with it, pulling him through the emotional experience of it, exactly as a dance should. It wasn’t until dancer and prop were tucked behind the curtain once more that Naj was able to regain his wits. And even then, it was slow going. He was grateful for the distraction of the next act beginning, even if the music did seem a touch… foreboding.

Previous: Chapter 6, part 3                                                      Next: Chapter 7, part 2

Chapter 6, part 2

In which Naj makes more new friends.

Kain didn’t bother opening his eyes at the sound of the door opening. He knew it was Nica when she paused in the doorway, no doubt assessing the improvement of the situation she’d left behind. A mixed swirl of emotion appeared and vanished before Kain could identify all of it, though relief was evident. Let her keep her complexities, he had a feeling she’d be full of them for a while given her extended absence from Asylum.

When he finally did open his eyes, he met her raised eyebrow with a smile. “I haven’t taught him any bad habits, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

Naj snickered, then quickly stifled it. Kain might shirk the honors of being eijye, but he hadn’t had a chance to test out his eija. Still, it had been a good joke, and Naj let his amusement color his aura before tucking it away into something more serious. He remained seated, when Kain made no effort to stand, but kept his words polite.

“I’m sorry if I worried you, eija. I am feeling much better now, thank you.”

Nica made a face at Kain’s teasing, tossing a thought at him in regards to his earlier concern. Of course, he deflected it readily and then the new dancer was speaking.

“I’m glad you’re feeling better.”

He didn’t know what to do with their gentle easiness. Things were clearly relaxed in this nest, but that left Naj at a loss as to how to proceed. If he were legitimately injured or unwell, even the Dai would insist he take time off to recover- what good was a broken tool– but Naj didn’t think he was unwell, exactly, just… off balance.

But, perhaps it would be best to take a day to get his bearings. He would learn more efficiently if he could focus, and so in the interest of not wasting anyone’s time, Naj finally came to a decision.

“I am no longer faint, but I do not believe I will be fit for duty at any point today. My status is too unpredictable, I feel. I apologize.”

Nica raised her eyebrows at his statement, wondering if Kain had said something to spark the apology. When she glanced over to Kain though, he merely shrugged one shoulder. She turned her attention back to the serpent, a little troubled that his first thought had been to his duty. Duty was not a word lightly used, especially by a serpent.

“No one thought you would work tonight – I never expect a dancer to dance until they’re comfortable in the nest. If that takes a week or a month or more, that’s fine. It shouldn’t be a duty to dance, but something you want to do, something you enjoy.”

Naj dipped his head low, unable to resist the years of habit the words carried with them.

a’parn’ei,eija. Thank you for your understanding.”

He faltered, feeling a wave of …not quite disapproval, but restraint? Was Kain trying to coach him? Naj raised his face, giving Kain a mix of apology and gratitude in his small smile.

“Kain tells me such formality has fallen out of practice. I appreciate your patience as I learn to dance to a more modern tune.”

He rose in a long, elegant line, giving Nica a proper dancer’s bow of beauty and art, not the timid cowering of before. His smile blossomed as the movement filled his soul, light shining in his eyes.

“I do look forward to gracing your stage, when I am ready. I hope I can add to the joy and the fire that fills your home. Thank you for your warm welcome.”

Nica smiled as he bowed, more than a bit relieved to see his aura taking a more natural serpent flow and warmth. She had to wonder at his words and actions though – just how old was he? It wasn’t a question politely asked among the longer lived races, especially since magic could extend natural lifetimes. The last war that had been waged against magic users was over by more than a century, but that was barely a moment passing to those who had survived it. Such events left marks in mannerisms and stigmas that were often the only subtle signs of a shifter’s age. Nica could easily recognize those born around her own century, and easier still identify those far younger, but once a person’s age was over a century, she had no head for the nuances. For instance, she knew from his hints that Kain held far more than just one or two centuries under his belt, but just how many was a mystery to her. Of course, that meant that he was invaluable when it came to learning such delicate details about her dancers.

“We’re glad to have you here, though Kain’s correct,” she glanced over at the big cat as she spoke, “we’re much less formal here. I want you to be able to relax, to consider this your home too.”

Marie’s voice chimed in from just behind Nica. “Yes! You should feel at home with us!”

Nica glanced back to find Marie being gently restrained by Nat, while Lena carefully peeked around the pair of them.

“Naj, you know Nat and Marie, this is Lena.”

Lena stepped out slightly from Nat and Marie, but stayed back a bit. She waved, one foot tucked behind the other as the tail from her snow leopard form swayed behind her. Her smile was uncertain, but happy. “Hey.”

Naj flinched at the sudden intrusion, despite Marie’s welcoming declaration. He was glad to see they were mostly familiar faces, though the new comer was definitely eye catching. Even with her shy demeanor, the boldness of her neon pink shirt – dress?– made her the loudest of the three. The bright color set off her starkly colored fur nicely, and warmed her creamy skin. Despite her obvious attempts to remain in the background, in neon pink she hard to look away from. Naj did his best not to stare, or bow, or anything else that might be considered off putting, in light of his recent advice. But even if good manners didn’t dictate it, he found himself needing to acknowledge her, to reach out in some way. She was too beautiful not to, and her shyness just made her that much more appealing to his own quiet nature. He settled for extending his hand, with a ripple of scales by way of the now familiar introduction.

“A pleasure to meet you, Lena. My name is Naj.”

Lena slipped forward to take the offered hand, smile growing as she did so. “It’s nice to meet you too, Naj.”

To his relief, as they touched, nothing more passed between them than warmth and friendship. He was grateful, too, that Natalia was keeping Marie at bay. He just wasn’t certain how much of the fiery little fox he could handle right now.

He stepped back into the room, giving the new dancers access to the space he had previously been blocking.

Lena immediately tucked herself back when he moved away, more out of habit than any current nervousness. While she loved to be with everyone, sometimes being the center of attention still made her uncomfortable.

Kain stood in a smooth movement, drawing all eyes to him. He nodded to Nica with a wide smile. “I’m going to catch a nap before it’s time to set up.”

Before Nica could protest, Nat caught the cue readily, pulling Marie with her towards the door. “And we have a dance that needs rehearsing.” Marie wrinkled her nose, but allowed herself to be pulled backward. She called to Naj, “I’ll see you later!” with a big wave.

Lena began to slip towards the door after giving Nica a kiss on the cheek. She waved to Naj, adding, “I should make sure my costumes are ready for tonight, but I’m sure I’ll see you later too.”

Nica shook her head as the room emptied as quickly as it had filled. She especially liked how Kain had smoothly made his exit before she could get a word alone with him. He had to know she wanted to speak with him and was avoiding her.

She glanced over at Naj, “Are you still alright?”

Well. That was certainly abrupt. But it seemed to be the norm, given all the comings and goings of this morning. Honestly, he was grateful the room had cleared out as quickly as it had. He was doing well so far, but he wouldn’t relax until a day or two had passed without magical incident.

But that was for him to worry about. Clearly, the nest was diving into what would be a busy day, and there was no need for him to keep their nest leader from them.

tz, eija. I am fine.. I don’t believe there’s any reason for me to keep you any longer.”

Nica nodded, glad that the brief introductions hadn’t overwhelmed the new dancer. “Actually, there isn’t anything pressing, unless that’s your polite way of asking to be left alone.” She gave him a smile that she hoped let him know she was only teasing.

“Oh no! No, no, no- not at all.”

He reached out, but hesitated, knowing he shouldn’t be as formal, but unsure how far to take it. He didn’t want to seem stiff, or ungrateful, but to think he might have somehow offended…

She moved forward to finish the movement he’d started, wanting to encourage him to be more familiar with his nestmates. His aura was more open and warmer, more like the serpents she was accustomed to. She didn’t think he would immediately fall back into the cool withdrawn state he’d been in earlier, but it was a worry not far from her mind. She settled for touching his shoulder, not wanting to risk overheating him with a hug. “It’s alright, Naj, I was just teasing.”

His hand sought out her own on his shoulder, drawing comfort from offering it. “I am sorry. I simply…” He shrugged, resting his head on her hand. “I feel like I’m being more trouble than I’m worth.” The words were neutral, almost empty. But that was truly how he felt about the matter. It bothered him to be a bother, but he wasn’t particularly distressed about it, personally. He simply didn’t feel he was worth disrupting the nest over. He would find his own way, in time.

At his indication that touch was welcome, she stepped closer, letting her other hand rub his arm gently. His comment had sobered her slightly, the implication of dismissal from his past clear. She kept her energy open and relaxed, not wanting to add to his distress by reacting to it. “You’d be surprised how often I hear similar things from new dancers… And I find that given time, they understand they’re worth it.”

Instinctively, she kissed the top of his head. “I hope you do too.”

“I hope you find me to be worth it, as well.”

He had meant for it to sound more hopeful, but somehow, like everything, it just came out… wrong. But he was determined to move past it, and so he stepped away so that he might offer Nica his arm.

“Come. I did mean what I said about not keeping you away from your nest. Let me learn what steps I can, and when I have had enough, I’ll be certain to let you know.”

It was hard not to smile at his words, though she doubted that he even realized where she was finding the humor.

“You’re not keeping me away from our nest, Naj.” She stressed the “our” gently as she slipped her arm through his. “You’re part of it now, and if you want to learn more about it, I’m more than happy to show you… I assume someone’s given you some sort of look around?”

Her words melted his heart, and he pulled her closer without thinking. Her energy was comfortable, like the energy of the nest she’d created, a natural extension of herself. It spread to envelope him, and in turn, he reached out to include himself in it.

He ducked shyly as she asked about his familiarity. “I’ll admit, it was a bit much to take in. But yes, I was shown around the downstairs last night.”

Her constant vigilance began to relax as it became clear he was doing the same. She chuckled, “Is there anywhere you’d still like to see or any questions I could answer?”

“I’m afraid it’s all still too new, I don’t know where to star- oh!” His uncertainty blossomed into excitement.

“Kain had mentioned a rooftop garden?”

“Oh, yes.” Nica grinned, her feathers fluffing and resettling as she caught his excitement. “The gardens are one of my favorite places.”

She began to move forward now that a destination was in mind. The door that opened to the front of house would be the quickest path to the balconies, rather than taking the door that opened to the backstage area. “It would be my pleasure to show you the rooftop.”

a’parn’ei, thank you very much!” He followed her eagerly out onto the floor, only to come to a complete stop again when he saw Marie and Nat dancing.

Previous: Chapter 6 part 1                                            Next: Chapter 6 part 3

Prologue: part 4

“No, no, it needs to be… Edgier. We’re trying to entice the audience, not put them to sleep. Less hypnotic, more sex.”

Dev’s voice cracked over the stage and Emily resisted the urge to sigh. Ever since Nica had left, Dev had spent more and more time here during the day, trying to fill in. Emily didn’t mind, at first. Dev cared about the nest, in her own strange way of showing it. She was trying.

And as the owner of Asylum, the club where the dancers’ nest lived and worked, it was Dev’s business as well as her family. Emily understood that Dev had to keep both sides in mind. Just because Em thought the place was pretty successful already didn’t mean she actually knew anything. She didn’t handle the money, just accepted the paycheck she got every other week for performing. Granted, it did seem smaller lately, but she’d been taking a lot of time off for school stuff, so who knew?

Emily shook her shoulders out, trying to bring her thoughts back to the dance. Dance now, school worries later. “Alright, edgier… Um…”

She looked to Lena on her other side, who looked just as lost as Em felt. They’d been working on this routine for months, but neither of them felt it was right, so it was still in practice limbo. They’d only performed it for Dev to see if the club manager had any advice. Unfortunately, she did, but nothing useful.

Lena shrugged, but heard Em’s silent plea for help. “Maybe we could add a shimmy?”

She repeated their last few steps, adding the move in question. Emily pursed her lips, but shrugged and followed suit. It worked, from a technical stand point, but the energy of the piece was all wrong. The more they tried to fix it, the worse it became some days. They just didn’t have the solid background in the serpent style of dance that Nica did. She’d been the one to teach them what they knew of it, and without her here to help them through the rough spots…

There was a reason they hadn’t performed the piece yet. It just didn’t work and soon Dev was calling out at them again.

“Edgier! How much skin will you be showing? That might help… Make the movements more sultry…Maybe it’s just this song – do we have something more sex than this overly romantic dribble? Surely…”

Emily and Lena shared a look while their backs were to Dev. It was times like this that they both missed Nica’s input the most. Not only would she have danced the routine with them, she would have interceded with the well-meaning club owner as well. But they were on their own, so they both took a breath and tried to figure out how to make their moves more sultry and enticing and “edgier”.

Previous: Prologue 3                                                                                                                                            Next: Prologue 5