In which things get a bit out of hand.
As the last act ended, they stayed where they were sitting, letting the crowd empty out. She’d always enjoyed watching the crowd as they began to come down off the high of the performances. Some of the staggering was from alcohol, but the excitement was always genuine.
Whispering behind her grabbed her attention and she turned in time to hear someone say her name. There was a pair of gentlemen standing a few feet back, staring,t hen grinning when they saw her face them.
“I told you it was her!” The taller man said, elbowing his companion in excitement.
A smile automatically fit her lips and she raised expectant eyebrows. She was actually surprised no one had said anything prior to this, but then, she had been gone quite a while.
“It is Nica, isn’t it?” He asked when she didn’t say anything.
She nodded and his grin grew. “Knew it! I might not have recognized you, but I knew anyone dressed like that,” He gestured towards Naj, “Probably worked here and the only girl I knew that worked here with hair like yours was you.”
His friend’s amusement at his babbling was fading as he glanced at his watch. It was late for most people, the show having run into the late evening/early morning hours.
He knew his time was running out and the speed of his talking quickened. “You’re going to be on stage for Blue Moon, right?”
Nica barely had a chance to nod before he continued. “Alright! I’ve got some friends who’re real fans of yours, I’ll be sure to let them know!”
His friend drew him away and she heard something low about wings and drums. She frowned only a bit after them, not recognizing the gentleman. It would be silly to expect to recognize every customer, but Blue Moon nights required a special pass to get into the club. She’d thought she’d known everyone with one. At least she should have been able to pin down what sort of supe he was.
She shook her head, disoriented by the encounter. When she caught Naj’s eye, she smiled. “It was bound to happen sometime tonight.”
Naj wondered if his face was that obviously lost, or it she was just being polite. The conversation had gone so quickly, with so many comments going over his head—what was wrong with Nica’s hair? The feathers were long gone… He knew his clothes were more of a costume in this day and age, but he’d been so comfortable he’d forgotten he’d stand out, until someone commented on it. And while he remembered Blue Moon being mentioned, he’d forgotten exactly what that meant.
He didn’t know what to make of the whole exchange, so he stuck to familiar ground.
“Are you feeling better?”
She took a deep breath, closing her eyes briefly as she felt the extent of her aura. Nica did feel better, fuller, warmer… She could lose the overshirt, but she’d wait until she was at least on the main floor.
“I am feeling better.” She smiled, pleased to realize it.
He’d stored up more than he himself needed, in case Nica hadn’t been able to draw enough on her own. He needn’t have worried. She was the heart of this nest, and it had gladly returned itself to her. He’d find a use for his back-up stores, or they’d dissipate naturally if no need presented itself. Part of it was surely powering his radiating joyful aura.
He sat in a happy bubble, watching the people around him, nearly drunk on the good feelings they exuded. There was a general flow towards the doors, and Naj found he couldn’t remember what came next. He looked to Nica, smile still spread over his face.
“Now what?” he asked cheerfully.
“Now we wait for the last few to trickle out so we can start shutting the club down.” She glanced towards the stairs, frowning slightly when she realized the third floor had been cordoned off. Were they that slow tonight?
Pulling her gaze away from the stairs, she looked around the now empty second floor. “We’ll head down and grab some rags, but the floor’s mostly clean up here – wipe tables and chairs, stack them, and a good sweep and mop should be all that’s needed.”
He settled back with a happy sigh, basking in the warmth that still radiated up from the ground floor. It was more intense this much closer than he was used to, but the familiarity helped soothe a knot between his shoulders he hadn’t noticed was there. He’d been on edge since they’d woken up, maybe even before then, but he was finally relaxing.
The time to answer Nica had passed. He’d forgotten that little social nuance, but she didn’t seem to mind. Nica seemed the sort of woman not to waste words, and if she had something to say, Naj was confident she would. So they watched the crowd dissipate in silence, Naj waiting for her cue that it was time to clean.
Nica watched Kain help a man who was especially unstable on his feet. She didn’t recognize him and the familiarity with which Kain treated him didn’t help. A regular? She barely remembered most of their regulars anymore. It was an unsettling feeling, but perhaps she just needed to get back into the swing of things for it all to come back.
The pair of them moved towards the door and she knew Kain would have a cab already waiting outside for him. They were down to the stragglers, the few who were settling up tabs and the friends who were so busy talking they didn’t realize they were last to go. She didn’t see anyone that was lingering unnecessarily though, and she was a little relieved to see that no one was skulking about in the hopes of seeing a dancer after the show. Those were typically the most unpleasant encounters.
She stood, stretching her back and letting her feathers mingle in her hair again. She glanced down to Naj. “Ready?”
Naj hopped up brightly with a nod, still buzzing with pent-up energy, though the high of audience had faded with their departure. He shivered when Nica pulled feathers, having spent enough time bathed in their mingling auras to feel the shift. It was prickly, but then soothing, like an itch finally scratched. It reminded Naj a bit of shedding, and his skin rippled in sympathetic goose flesh. He rubbed his arms to chase away the phantom chill then followed Nica down the stairs.
Dancers emerged from backstage as they came downstairs, most in casual clothes, some in various pieces of costume, all still bearing their smiles and bits of make-up.
Kain appeared at their side with some rags and spray bottles. Just as Nica was about to ask Naj if he wanted to work on the upstairs or downstairs, Ro jogged by calling out, “Got the stairs!”
She chuckled, glancing over at Naj. “You want to help up there or down here?”
“Does it matter?” he asked, bewildered. He didn’t do well with choices, and he felt the first stirrings of panicked indecision.
Before either she or Kain could answer, there was a high pitched keening that instinctively made Nica brace herself. As it came closer, the sound resolved into a drawn out syllable of her name. A small tanned bundle bowled into her and her arms automatically wrapped to catch it.
With a breathless laugh, she shook her head. “Hi, Chris.”
His face buried itself in her cleavage and she sighed, jostling his weight so he’d know she was about to drop him. Catching himself lightly on his feet, he grinned up at her, arms wrapping around her again to squeeze hard enough that she nearly lost her breath again.
“You can’t ever leave me again, Ni.” His voice was muffled against her skin and she ruffled his hair affectionately.
“I missed you to-” “Missed your breasts too much.” Their words collided and with a snort she pushed the smaller man back a step.
He grinned up at her, green eyes twinkling with mischief.
A rag caught Chris by the face and his impossibly wide grin grew as Kain pointed to the bar. “Go clean something, jackal.”
With a cackle that echoed to the rafters, the small man was off, darting rather than moving. Nica couldn’t help but laugh. She knew that Chris was more mirth than serious, always looking for an easy laugh to keep moods around him high. He could be alarmingly somber though, if he thought no one was looking. She was glad he’d made the joke and shaking her head, she glanced back to Naj.
“That was Chris, you’ll get used to him.”
He’d been half-frozen with panicky indecision. The shriek of a wail drove him completely into serpent stillness, he stood and watched the scene unfold from the shadows he’d drawn about himself. Nica’s comment brought him back to life, and he flushed guiltily at his flagrant show of power. How had he come so dependent on power? And how had he not noticed it? To draw the dark earthiness around him without a thought–
Earthiness? His brow furrowed, but it was true. He hadn’t drawn on the dark shadows of his usual habit—he’d hidden himself with the deep secretive powers of the earth. Which meant that somewhere, something had an abundance of it to spare. The gardens maybe? Nica had said the door was warded, but that didn’t mean it was completely cut off…
Naj visibly shook himself, bringing his attention back to Nica’s questioning look.
Kain was glad that Nica was so caught up in Chris and then Naj that he had time to school his features. He knew his expression had blanked when Naj had pulled against his aura. That was a new one.
He’d had nestmates that could feel his magic, but to have one usurp it without any warning… A little pocket of ice was forming in his chest. He was Dai. Tool or not, the training was obvious. And the disregard with which he’d used that training so far…
Nica was completely oblivious to it. Born a century after the Dai fell, there was no reason for her to recognize it. Perhaps he should have a word with Naj in private, before this became a resurgence of the Dai empire…
Surely he was simply being paranoid. The Dai had fallen, he’d watched them fall, had made sure they would not rise again to their previous heights.
Fate had a sense of humor to have brought a practicing Dai into his nest after all this time.
Kain smiled as Nica’s attention turned his way and he realized they’d been talking of cleaning chores. He handed off the rags and cleaner he was still holding and the pair of them began wiping down tables.
He watched them for a moment more, then turned away. Nat caught his eye, raising an elegant eyebrow. He shook his head. Her shrug was barely existent and Marie tugged at her arm, excitedly chattering about something.
Kain went to finish closing down the bar, keeping his thoughts to himself.
Naj threw himself into the business of cleaning, focusing on the circular motion of wiping. He scowled as he realized he’d been building a banishment with his pattern, and he wiped a harsh zig zag over the table’s surface. But even that was a traditional motion of negating, drawing on the character for zt, the sign for “no”. Working himself into a fine temper, he set to work on the next table, cleaning in it long, steady lines from top to bottom, focusing intently on not focusing at all.
Nica settled into a familiar rhythm. Two years hadn’t erased it and she fell into the task with a smile. It was meditative enough that she didn’t realize someone had started up some music. Nor did she realize she was singing along, voice rising and falling with her motion.
This was home. Life and warmth in the air around her, in her ears, heart, vibrating along her skin.
The song changed and she followed along, pleased when she realized she knew the songs. She grew more mindful of her voice, letting it fill her chest.
She moved from table to table, song to song, only looking up when she realized that several dancers were clustered near her, grinning like fools.
Nica raised an eyebrow, but couldn’t hide her own smile. As the music faded back down, she waved her rag at them. “Don’t you guys have work to do?”
It was Chris who laughed. Gesturing around, he drew her attention to all the clean tables and empty bar. “Done and done!”
She realized that the table she’d been working on was one of the last. With a shake of her head, she finished. “Alright, alright. Show’s over.”
There was a chorus of exaggerated groans and she rolled her eyes, catching Nat’s grin. Someone called out, “Jukebox time!”
Nat stepped in before Nica could protest. “Nica deserves more than one day to rest, come on guys, how about a movie instead?”
Chris jumped in, talking up some movie he’d picked up on the way home. The crowd dispersed with much laughter and debate. From what she understood, someone else had a different movie they wanted to watch.
She was glad for the distraction. While she enjoyed Jukebox time, a tradition of dancing and singing after a show to blow off some of the leftover energy… She didn’t quite feel up to it tonight.
Nica looked around at the thought, finding Naj to give him a smile. It widened when she saw Marie as well.
Naj gave Nica a little wave, with the arm Marie had left him. She was thoroughly wrapped around the other. She’d found him too far in thought, softly teasing him that he was taking the finish off the table he was working on. After Nica’s quiet intensity, Marie’s open simplicity was most welcome. She was surprisingly subdued from what he’d come to expect of her, but that was welcome too. Maybe, getting up early with him had taken its toll. He almost hoped so—he hated to have worn her out, but he would love to curl up with her and Nat again.
The dancers were moving with a purpose towards the downstairs, and Naj swept his free arm gracefully in their direction, turning to Marie with a smile. “Shall we?”
Marie snuggled against Naj’s arm, smiling when Nica looked their way. She looked relaxed, an easiness to it that reminded Marie everything was alright. It was that smile that had always told her as a child that everything would work out. No matter what happened, Nica would smile and everything would be alright, even if it took a little time.
Marie squeezed Naj’s arm, glad to feel him against her. The sensation combined with the safe feeling of having Nica back and she fought back a yawn. If she curled up with him for the movie, she was going to fall asleep.
Which sounded perfect right now.
She nodded at his invitation and they followed everyone else going downstairs. Nica and Kain trailed after them, talking softly among themselves.
Naj strained to hear the low voices behind him. But the pair was clearly used to having hushed conversations, because he couldn’t make out a thing. Not even a vague emotional impression.
He realized he’d been slowing when he felt Marie pulling away from him. She turned to him with the beginnings of a questioning look, which he dodged with a polite comment about enjoying her dance that evening. She beamed up at him, babbling happily about dancing with him again sometime, but Naj’s attention was as fixed on the pair behind him as he could manage without giving himself away.