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.

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

Chapter 7, part 3

In which Gwen dances.

Nica returned to her seat, and the rehearsal continued. Naj was buzzing with questions and comments, but even if he had been willing to speak through another dancer’s performance, he wouldn’t dare interrupt the tigress on stage. As with every tiger he’d ever met, she owned every inch of the space around her, and all that she laid eyes on. It was only through her graciousness that she allowed the others to watch her.

He shivered, pushing the pervading aura off of his so he could breathe a little easier.

He was certainly out of his old habits, if he let the feline’s natural energies overcome him so. She wouldn’t be projecting, here in the comfort of her own nest, Naj was simply that susceptible. Ah well. While it meant more work in the long run, it also meant he could enjoy the performance in a way a more disciplined dancer would not. Upsides to everything.

Gwen’s dance began with a haunting piano piece that drew her across the stage almost as if against her will. Her classical ballet training shone as she put her internal struggle into movements that were as eerily beautiful as the audible landscape. When the second piano joined in, her movements jumped from one piece to another, showcasing a dancer torn. Her leaps and bows sent her from one end of the stage to the other with speed that balanced the fine edge of inhumanly possible.

It was captivating. Nica found herself leaning forward, breath caught in her throat as she followed the elegant lines of every movement. When the piece came to a slow, reluctant halt and Gwen bowed low for a final time, Nica felt the physical release as well. She leaned back in her seat, pulling a long, deep breath.

The tigress’ prowess on stage always seemed to catch Nica off guard. It wasn’t that she doubted Gwen’s ability, but the command and beauty in her form was awe-inspiring. Tigers were renowned for their physicality, which almost always translated into the arena of fighting. To see her transform that power into music was beyond words. And after two years in a nearly all-serpent nest, the sheer force of it was breathtaking.

As Gwen paced offstage in her simple black leotard, Nica wondered what costume she would choose to accompany the piece. She supposed she would simply have to see it tonight.

The loud clattering of his chair falling away startled Naj more than his actual fall. Then the jarr of impact coursed through him, and the spell was finally broken. Not a proper spell, to be sure, but Naj had been thoroughly entranced by the tigress dancing nonetheless.

It had been foolish to let his guard down so completely, but the temptation to be truly lost in the mn, the ki’n

Seth shouldn’t have indulged him. How many missteps had he made today? He had lost count at this point. It was time to call it a day, to rest and reflect on whether it should be counted as a success or failure. He really couldn’t tell. On the one hand, there had only been the one major shifting incident, but on the other– no. He shouldn’t be so hard on Naj. He was doing very well, all things considered. And all things in their time.

But really– to lose himself in the tiger’s dance like that… Not that she wasn’t stunning, but still.

Are you alright?” Nica held a hand out to help him up, even as she glanced back at the stage. A nod to her and the other dancers kept with what they had been doing. Seth stared at it blankly, mind racing through their aura and mindscape, judging the excitement in hers, wondering at that first flash of memory episodes– No, he was being foolish. Naj would never learn to depend on his nestmates if Seth kept interfering. He left Naj to take Nica’s offered hand, staying carefully poised to jump back in at the first sign of magical flare up, but otherwise keeping his hands off.

Naj took her hand, only realizing after the fact that it was without any hesitation. The smile that brought to his face was utterly inappropriate for the moment, but Naj didn’t care. He was relaxing, and that was a thing to be celebrated. Even as he was being helped from the floor because of his mistakes.

It was getting easier not to kick himself for every little misstep, becoming more natural to simply touch and be touched. He leaned into Nica’s side without questioning why, or wondering what she’d make of it– he was simply living in his nest.

Of course, it wouldn’t do to ignore her concern for him, no matter how happy he was in the moment. He shook his head, smile still firmly locked in place, then laid his head on her shoulder so he might be close enough to whisper.

I’m fine. It’s simply been a long time since I’ve watched a tiger dance.”

He knew she would understand, having such a dancer in her own nest.

Nica nodded, humming her agreement softly. She patted his shoulder before reaching past him to upright his chair.

She hated to dislodge his touch, but she wanted him to sit again considering how prone he seemed to be to falling. And that odd look that had crossed his face before taking her hand… Not feral, but not something she could readily dismiss. She tucked his chair closer to hers so they could keep touching as they sat.

Nica pulled him down, arm about his shoulder.

Naj was grateful when Nica didn’t press further. He hated to disrupt the show, even if it was only a practice. He was equally grateful when she tucked him back beneath her arm without hesitation. His urges to flee had been wrong. It wasn’t more solitude he needed. It was this. This quiet companionship and easy acceptance was what his soul had been seeking. Home.

He nestled down in his chair, laying his head on Nica’s shoulder once more. He would not speak again, with dancers on stage, but he let his peacefully full aura speak for him.

Several more acts of varying types went by – some overtly sexual, some designed to tease and incite laughter, and others that existed simply to remind the audience of the sheer beauty held in physical movement. For the most part, Nica held her counsel through the rest of practice. There were only a few more performances she offered her advice on, and even then, only verbally and when clearly sought after.

Nica knew which piece was coming as Marie settled the chair onto the middle of the stage. Her gaze slid to Naj. She hadn’t forgotten how poorly the serpent had taken to being the participant of this particular dance and it left her wondering how he would take to watching it. It shouldn’t be a problem, but she would rather be prepared.

Marie drew Rowan into the chair and took her position behind him. She’d changed her costume into one Nica remembered – a black skirt slung low and cut high with red lacy underwear underneath and a halter top that was just a long piece of red cloth carefully tied around her waist and neck.

When the song started, Marie followed the same movements as she had when she had danced with Naj, pulling Rowan up and moving around him, chasing him around the chair. This time though, every dip and circle flashed the red lace beneath her skirt. Rowan looked ill at ease, but not panicked, as he still ducked from her arms and backed away. When she drew him back and circled him, Nica could barely spot when she carefully untied part of her halter to loop around his waist. It was a skilled maneuver that most of the audience would miss. When he tried to flee the second time, her top tugged loose, revealing the sparkly black pasties that hid her nipples, but otherwise bared her petite breasts.

The loop of fabric tied them together and she used it to her advantage, pulling Rowan back and encouraging him to move with her. As the song pressed longer, he seemed to lose his unwillingness and the song finally ended with his hands on her hips and her knee drawn up to his hips as he dipped her backwards.

Naj felt very small and foolish.

Out of context, the dance had been overwhelming. He’d have reacted just as poorly to Lena and Emily, or– dare he imagine it, Kain’s– dance if it had been thrust upon him without warning, as Marie’s had been this morning. Seeing it with a ready partner, as part of a whole set that offered more of the same and occasional breaks from such, it was clear he had overreacted. He would have to apologize to Marie, at some point.

Or, perhaps not. She had seemed alright when he’d seen her earlier, and there had been no hesitation in her performance now. It wouldn’t do to upset her needlessly. He would watch, and wait, as always.

After a few more acts, the stage stayed empty. Everyone slowly meandered downstairs or out for a quick lunch. Nica glanced to the clock, only a little surprised when it wasn’t quite three. Sitting and watching had seemed to take much longer, and yet take no time at all. Nica stretched, arching her back to pull the muscles taunt, but subtly, so she didn’t push Naj away. She probably should have warmed up before dancing earlier. Or at least afterwards, ah well.

She looked down at Naj. “Three o’clock marks the point that everyone needs to cool down and get ready for tonight. We have two hours before opening, so there’s time for a quick meal and a shower before we open the club.”

He noted how carefully she moved, and quite appreciated it. But he needed to stretch himself, so when she finished explaining where everyone had gone, he slipped out of his seat and reached high overhead. When his spine cracked, he dropped his arms with a satisfied sigh and a grin.

So there is also time for those of us that have been sitting this entire time to get some much needed exercise?”

Nica raised an eyebrow when Naj stood to stretch, then smiled. “True. More than enough, since neither of us will work tonight.” She stood as well, mimicking Naj’s stretch from a moment ago. “The training at Ariella’s nest has meant I’ve been getting little sleep the past few weeks, so I intended to take the night off myself.”

Foolish, but he felt better knowing he wouldn’t be the only one abstaining. He would have wondered if Nica was doing it only for him, but he knew first hand how hard a raptor would push its nest. She doubtlessly needed her rest.

Which meant it was time for Naj to repay her kindness, by giving her time to rest. Watching the nest dance had helped him feel more at home with them, and it was time he struck out on his own. At least for a little while.

He checked himself before giving her a proper bow, but he did still politely incline his head before speaking again. “Thank you for your kindness this day. I appreciate all you have done, especially in light of how tired you must be. Look after yourself now, eija, and I will trust myself to the care of my new nestmates.”

His earnestness brought a chuckle to her lips and she reached out to embrace him. “They will doubtless enjoy that.”

Naj winced, but kept his good humor. “I should go now, then, before I realize the folly of such a decision.” With another half bow, he turned and mounted the stage, disappearing behind the curtains.

Of course, once he was behind the curtain, it was another story entirely. He stopped cold, staring at the chaos, completely unsure of where to start.

While his departure seemed abrupt, she supposed he had been serious about his joke. Nica watched him vanish behind the curtain, considering.

He had been doing so well between the gardens and practice. Falling from his chair aside, his energy had been constant and warm. Even that fall was understandable though. Gwen could have that affect on anyone and for a serpent susceptible to her aura, it could be overwhelming.

Nica was surprised he’d done so well with it, considering his morning.

From the corner of her eye, Nica spotted Dev stepping behind the bar to check in with the computer. If the pair of them were alone, she might as well use the moment to speak with the demon.

Previous: Chapter 7, part 2                                             Next: Chapter 8, part 1

Character Bio: Marie

About time I finally did Asylum’s sweetheart, Marie! I really struggled with her face, probably because I’m really getting the hang of the tablet and so am expecting more out of myself, but also because she does have sort of that wood nymph vibe going on, and it’s really hard to make someone look young and grown up at the same time.

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

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

Ch 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.”

a’Parn, eija. I would like that very much.”

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

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. Then stopped dead.

The music shifted abruptly, an all too familiar rift, with a counterpoint of shouts and groans.

Chris!” Matthew stalked across the stage toward the soundbox, fists clenched, the warm musk of alpha wolf rising. His words were a low growl, ground out from between clenched teeth. “What are you doing? We are trying to practice.”

Chris just grinned, holding up a finger. “Wait for it…”

Carrie was right behind her husband, small hand wrapping around his very muscular arm. “Chris, you know better. We voted as nest, no more Rick Rol-”

But it wasn’t Rick Astley. In a masterful, unlikely blend, the auto-tune vocals layered over the classic pop beat.

Dog goes woof, cat goes meow…”

More groans, but a squeal of glee covered it all. Marie burst from behind the curtains, arms flailing like a mad muppet, screaming something about “her FAAAV!” as her tail whapped everyone in her path. Nica stared, torn between bewilderment and amusement. Just as she decided to do something—she didn’t know what– the music cut to a halt.

Enough.”

Kain scooped Marie up by the waist, tail still happily circling. He turned on Chris, leaning against the soundbox, grasping his side, gasping out “Worth it! Worth it!”

Video transcript: Happy April Fool’s! When I saw the update day fell on April Fool’s, I couldn’t resist. I did, however, restrain myself, largely because I was straying into spoiler territory. So, you’re welcome, or I’m sorry. Whichever. Either way, I promise real dancing next week, and none of this *queue Rick Astley and Yvlis*

Chapter 6, part 3

In which Naj discovers many wondrous things.

Naj stopped in his tracks, openly staring as Nat and Marie danced. The contrast of night and day between them was even stronger than it had been the evening before. Clearly, the pair had great chemistry and knew how to build and play off of one another. Marie’s style was just as aggressive as ever, but it was soothed by Nat’s more subtle, more sultry compliment. Each of them was powerfully seductive in their own way, and Naj couldn’t help but stare.

Nica was brought to a halt when Naj stopped abruptly. She followed his gaze to the stage and she took a moment to appreciate the beauty she found there. It was clearly a dance of Nat’s design, and Nica felt a small swell of wistfulness that she didn’t recognize it. The steady movement of the taller woman was punctuated by Marie’s bursts of motion and color. The pair of them were undeniably beautiful together.

It was nearly impossible to look away. Spectral trails followed every sweep and bend and curve, filling the stage with ghostly images. He was no longer able to pick out any singular move, let alone style. He’d nearly lost the dancers in the spell they were weaving.

Ah, lost again. Seth had to admit, they were quite lovely, but if Naj couldn’t separate his normal vision from his serpentine senses, they may as well give up now. Yes, the Three Pillars style stage did much to accentuate the natural energies of the nest, but Naj had to pull it together. Perhaps, after a breath of fresh air, they could try again, but for now, Naj still needed a buffer.

But after his experience with the nest eijye, he was wary of tipping his hand. He’d have to tread carefully, while getting Naj out of here quickly.

He relaxed his careful hold on their aura, sending the barest of questing thoughts in their eija’s direction. Hopefully, with something this minor, she wouldn’t notice. Provided he wasn’t as rusty as the growing pile of evidence would suggest.

Seth reached out for the fox kit’s energy, calling on the ties they’d formed dancing together this morning. Nothing overt, simply reminding her ki’n of the steps performed before. Just enough to distract…

When Marie broke the moment by laughing loudly at her own misstep, Nica laughed with her. Her gaze returned to Naj, who was still staring at the stage intently. Nica took the opportunity to gently pull on Naj’s arm. “We can watch the show tonight as well if you like – it would give you an idea of the variety of dances you can expect in Asylum.”If you’re more interested in watching performances, we could simply sit here through practice if you like.”

Naj blinked and stammered as he finally managed to look away. “I’m sorry, what were we saying?”

Nica was a little concerned when he couldn’t finish a sentence, the dance had been beautiful, but surely not that distracting?

“I was saying if you’d rather sit and watch the practice performances, we could?”

Damn. That wouldn’t do at all. So far, concern for her newest dancer was distracting their eija, but if they sat and made a study of the pair before them, surely the raptor would notice Seth’s hand in the convenient dance break. No, he needed them to get upstairs, and quickly.

It was cheap to use the same trick twice, but Seth was confident Nica wouldn’t connect the stumbling fox with the stumbling serpent. He let their knees go weak, just enough that Naj staggered for balance, catching Nica’s arm. A little heavy handed, but he pushed the sensation of light-headedness through the connection their auras made on contact.

Naj managed a smile, but it was weak and watery. Clearly, all the magic outbursts were taking their toll. As much as he’d love to sit and drink in the ki’n of his new nest, he needed a moment to regain himself. The stillness of a garden would do just the thing, he hoped.

“I think it might be wiser if we continued upstairs. The fresh air would do me some good.”

Nica nodded at Naj’s explanation. It was sensible, for a serpent to find himself ungrounded if he was recovering from being feral. The serpent would shy away from so much motion and sound, she could see how the nest in its daily action would be distracting and overwhelming.

She steadied him with an arm against his back, guiding them towards the stairs again. “Then the gardens it is.”

parn’ei. Again.” He offered a small laugh, hooking his arm over her shoulders. As they moved forward, a stiffness melted away from his posture, as he became more certain that he wasn’t crossing some unspoken line. This level of familiarity with his eija would take some getting used to, but that suited him just fine.

She led him up both flights of stairs, until they were on the third balcony. “The door to the rooftop isn’t quite hidden, but it is out of the way so that customers don’t try to use it.”

She opened the door adding, “There’s also a ward on this door in case the Employees only sign isn’t deterrent enough.”

With a hand on his back, she urged him up the stairs first. When they reached the second door, she reached past him to open it as well.

The ripple of magic was becoming familiar, though Seth was still careful to keep himself tucked away. Naj was handling himself fairly well, and Seth was confident that the rooftop would be relatively uneventful.

Naj was speechless.

A near forest stretched out before them, the midmorning sunlight dazzling off the water- water? Up here? But he could hear it. Distinct from the sound of the river behind them, the ripple of a fountain sounded from across the roof. A breeze ruffled the trees- full sized trees!-bringing with it the scent of fresh fruits and herbs. And it was warm! Frost still lingered in the shadows of the warehouses below them, but the air surrounding them was fragrant and light as a gentle summer day. It was as if the very stones around them radiated warmth, enfolding them in a welcoming embrace.

Naj took one step, then another, hardly believing this space was real. If he moved too quickly, he was certain the dream around them would shatter.

Nica took a deep breath, losing herself a bit in the greenery around them. She hadn’t been able to immerse herself in it when she’d first arrived, but the absence of the demon and having received a welcome from her nest allowed her to fully enjoy it now.

She moved towards the blackberries, able to smell the ripeness on the air. She picked a choice handful, slipping one onto her tongue and savoring the burst of tart sweetness.

As she moved back to Naj, she touched a few plants, automatically checking the vegetables for pieces that needed to be picked. She knew Kain wouldn’t let anything get overripe, but it was an old habit she was happy to pick back up.

She held a few blackberries out to Naj with a smile. “This is my favorite place to relax, Kain’s really outdone himself up here.”

As he moved from one oasis to another, he couldn’t believe the vast array of plant life around them. One island held sweet corn, stalks just taller than his head. Another full of lilies, heady fragrance almost overwhelming. Tomatoes and peppers, roses and rhodendron, and the tress! They were ancient and stately- decades old if they were a day- and Naj had the boyish urge to climb one, to shift and crawl out into the furthest branches, feeling as if the wind might carry him away. But he was reluctant to touch any of it, for fear of bringing the magic of the garden tumbling down.

He hadn’t realized he’d lost Nica until she came back into his vision, blackberries in hand. Suddenly, he recalled his morning’s berries, and knew they must have come from here. This wonderland was a functioning garden, not some gossamer dream, but even as Naj took the plump berry delicately from Nica’s hand, he could hardly believe such a place could exist- and on a rooftop no less!

Once she’d said it, Kain’s energy was clear. The stones radiated the same warmth that the large man did, the same comfort, the same strength. The berry burst on his tongue with the same vibrant life from this morning, and now Naj understood why Kain was encouraged to do most of the cooking.

If the stage was an extension of Nica’s passion and dreams, then the garden was Kain’s. Surrounded by such power and love, Naj felt his anxieties melt away. He reached for Nica’s hand, to share the moment with her, to bring her into his joy.

He didn’t have to say anything for his happiness to move through her. She squeezed his hand with a smile, glad she could share it with him.

“One of Kain’s goals when we took over this warehouse was to have a good gardening area, he’s always preferred to cook with fresh ingredients…” She gestured to the obvious islands of vegetables and the counterpart flower beds. “Not to mention he grows most of the herbs he uses in his soaps.”

Naj’s smile blossomed as Nica continued to tell him about Kain. He had found the man immediately easy to get along with, and the more he learned, the more he wanted to know.

“He seems to be a man of many talents.”

“That he is.” She almost added that he also had a talent for being obnoxious, but she figured Naj could learn that for himself. Unless Kain saved that specialty for just her and Dev.

“Actually, the entire nest seemed to be full of surprise talents. From what I’ve seen.”

Marie’s sketches, Emily’s pottery- least of all the hawk who danced like a serpent. Naj wondered if his own hidden talents would ever be needed, though he certainly hoped not. Still, the thought was enough to put a damper on the joy he had felt a moment before. He gave a heavy sigh, eyes falling to the middle distance.

Nica nodded, wondering at the dip in his mood, but letting him settle it on his own. “That’s true. Some of those are things that they came to the nest with, some are talents that they discovered while staying here. I try to encourage it if someone finds something that makes them happy… The local college has actually been great for that. Emily uses their clay studio quite often for her art.”

She gestured towards the area of the college. From the roof, the sprawling campus was easy to see if you knew what you were looking at. “When you’re settled, if there’s something you’re interested in learning about, you might look into what classes they offer.”

Naj followed her arm, and suddenly, he felt as if he were flying. He could see the people down below, moving busily from building to building, chatting or reading, lives full of promise. And all of their dreams and ambition held him aloft, and he felt as if he could soar forever. He longed for wings of his own, to carry him on the winds wherever Fate saw fit.

D’anhk-khna…” He breathed the name of heaven and earth, the whispered prayer better suited to expressing his awe than anything else could.

She raised an eyebrow when it seemed he didn’t hear her at all. To be fair, it was a lot to take in at once. She let it go, knowing that there would be time again later if he was actually interested in expanding his interests. Some did, others were content to simply dance.

However, his use of pri’mn… That made her chuckle. When he glanced at her, she smiled. “My mother named me for the priestess Danica – she felt it appropriate that I share a name with the hawk from the Love that Broke the War. I rarely hear the full deity’s name invoked though.”

His brows furrowed at her words, not making the immediate connection. He knew it was a serpent tradition to name children for important figures, but he wasn’t familiar with the tale she told.

“Nica… Danica- Oh! Dankkna, I see.. The name has evolved over time, hasn’t it? Shortened, from the original?”

She laughed, mentally tucking his odd question away for later contemplation, right now she was enjoying their easy conversation. “It is, though in my case, the full name is Danica. I’ve simply gone by Nica since I was very young.”

Her laughter inspired him to as well. “I would have never made the connection from Nica to the spirits of earth and sky.” He gave her a warm smile, letting his happiness fill his face and his skin. “I think it suits you.”

“That was the idea, I believe.” She looked to the sky with a small smile. “My mother especially loved the story of The Love that Broke the War… I think adopting a hawk simply gave her the excuse to draw names from it.”

There it was again. He stepped further into the garden, drawing Nica to a large rock. “I’m not familiar with the story you keep referencing. Is it a take on a classic reija, or something more modern?”

She gave him a surprised look. “You’re not familiar with The Love that Broke the War?”

Nica tucked herself onto the rock as she let that sink in. “It’s an older story, set at the end of The Thousand Year war between the serpents and the raptors….

Naj remained silent throughout her tale. Not only out of respect for her telling, but out of a growing sense of familiarity, one that chilled him.

When she had finished, and was clearly awaiting some response, Naj couldn’t bring himself to meet her eyes. Finally, he spoke, voice barely above a whisper.

“I never would have imagined…”

Her hand sought his, the serpent need to give and receive comfort clear in her upbringing. He welcomed it, returning the gentle pressure and drawing strength to continue.

“The War…” No, that wasn’t the place to start. “No one can say how much truth is to be found in the old stories. Whether Li’Daea literally danced around the fire with our first kin, or ei’Ceres was more of a person or an idea- they all certainly came from somewhere.”

He drew a deep breath, trying to center himself before continuing. The memories that had surfaced at Nica’s arrival had been long, long buried, but now they seemed to be facing him at every turn.

“When I was a boy, relationships between the serpents and the avians were… tense. Honestly, the serpent kingdom had difficult relationships with most of their neighbors. But… to hear things progressed so poorly…”

His body shook, voice thick with emotions he couldn’t quite face. But with Nica’s arm around him, and the sun was rising higher in the sky, it was easier to turn his mind to brighter things. He patted her hand, giving her as bright a smile as he could.

“I’m glad to hear that peace was finally found.”

As he spoke of his childhood, she found it hard to focus on the pieces that were this new dancer. Instead she was only overwhelmed by the need to offer him comfort, to take away the trembling that passed from his hand to hers.

She kissed his cheek, leaning forward to give him a hug. “Indeed… It’s one of my favorite stories. I can’t count the number of times my family performed it growing up.”

Naj brightened. “It’s a rei’ramn? I’d love to learn it.”

“It is, I can teach it to you sometime if you like.” She would be pleased to share the songs and dances of her favorite story with him. It also reassured her that he didn’t think it would continue to bring such sad thoughts to his mind.

“Yes, please. I would like that very much.” He gave her hand a final squeeze before pushing off the rock, stretching high to the sky. “I’m quite looking forward to resuming a regular dancing routine. It’s been far too long.”

She joined him in the stretch, then extended a hand back towards the door. “Shall we go back downstairs? It should be about time to get the club ready for opening. I can walk you through what we usually do before the show.”

“By all means.”

He was proud of himself for not overblowing how much of her time he’d “wasted”. The moment they’d shared had been anything but a waste. He was learning how he fit in this nest, making connections that would tie him to this world.

But he wasn’t about to take her time for granted. He reached out and brushed her arm, giving her a warm smile.

“Thank you for sharing this time with me. I’m feeling much more grounded now.”

She returned his touch and smile, glad to see that his aura matched his words. “Good. I’ve enjoyed sharing the garden with you.”

Nica let her gaze slip past him to follow the height of an apple tree. “I’m glad it could bring you as much joy and peace as it gives me.”

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