Chapter 13, part 3

In which things get a bit out of hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you feeling better?”

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

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

Good!”

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

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

Now what?” he asked cheerfully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which sounded perfect right now.

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

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

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

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Chapter 8, part 3

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

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

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

“Hello, Ro.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He should move forward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Having figured it out, he grinned down at Naj.

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

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

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

“Indeed?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She would take her shower and rejoin the nest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was quite a show, to be sure.”

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

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

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

She shivered lightly and Rowan nodded.

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

“I’m, uh, glad I’m not the only one…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The slim woman shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kain snorted. “Cereal hardly needs making.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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*