In which Marie is tired, and Maleo is a jerk.
Marie headed towards the nearest dressing room, knowing that Mal was on her heels. It was time for them to have the talk she’d been dreading since she first saw Naj all of five minutes ago.
As soon as he passed the threshold, she spun back around and shut the dressing room door. No need for anyone else to overhear this. Everyone respected a closed door around here, as rarely used as they were.
She tilted her head slightly, signaling him to go first.
Mal took a step towards her, hands outstretched and golden eyes beseeching. “Marie, you know what happened the last time there was a snake in our nest. I’m only looking out for your best interests.”
She evaded his touch easily enough, her long tail lashing angrily behind her. She needed to watch herself or she’d start to spark. “What I remember is that you nearly got me killed, Maleo.”
He winced at her using his full name, obviously distancing herself from him further. She’d been doing it since Jax had left, it had just been more subtle and he hadn’t wanted to acknowledge it.
“Don’t be like that. You know I would never hurt you, Rie. You weren’t supposed to be there. If that stupid snake – “
“Don’t you even try to blame this on Jax. Don’t you dare!” She leveled a finger up at him, shaking with the force of her order. At the first spark along her nail, she clenched her hand into a fist. “He went with you because he thought you wanted peace, Maleo. That you were willing to try to make things better. All you wanted was to teach him some stupid lesson.”
His mouth opened and she rushed on before he could speak. “And look what your pettiness got you! Nothing, Maleo, nothing! All your stupid games and tricks – It was all for nothing.”
Her jaw trembled and she had to look away. “Nothing. And I lost someone I loved because of it.”
Pained, he reached for her and she stepped away again. She refused to look at him. Mal stooped and twisted, but finally gave up, throwing his hands in the air. “I told you it was an accident! You were never supposed to get hurt – when it comes down to it, those snakes -”
She bit her lip, tasting the faint tang of blood when a fang slipped. She shook her head. “You just don’t get it.”
“I don’t get it?” His voice was rising, the first warm traces of anger apparent. “I don’t get it? You’re the one that he nearly killed and here you are, ready to snuggle up to another killer!”
That made her look at him. She gaped, unable to grasp his anger or his bigotry. He took the advantage, stepping forward to hold her shoulders and gaze down at her, his expression turning tender.
“I only want to protect you. It was all I ever wanted. To keep you safe.” His voice hushed as he leaned down. “To love you.”
Marie pushed him suddenly. Her overly hot hands forced him back and he grabbed one shoulder in shock. They stared at each other, eyes wide. She’d never used her fire on him before.
“You’re so stupid, Mal.” She shook her head, tears already threatening to spill past her long lashes. “I did love you. Until you decided that your pride meant more to you than me. I loved you both, you selfish jerk.”
When she felt the first trickle of hot tears on her cheek, she shook her head harder and pushed past Mal to get to the door.
He called her name and she paused. It sounded hurt. It should. “Jax understood. He knew I loved you – why do you think he would have agreed to meet with you, Maleo? He knew I wanted you two to get along. He was willing to try – for me.”
She sniffed, trying to pull herself back together. Marie scrubbed her hands over her eyes.
“Marie – if you love me – “
“It’s because I loved you that I didn’t tell anyone you were there, Maleo. I was so scared of losing both of you…” She sniffed again, harder, getting angry with herself now. She shrugged his hand off her shoulder and reached for the door. “If you actually still care about me –“ She continued to speak over his protests that he did, “Then you’ll leave Naj alone. Drop whatever stupid hatred you have against serpents and let it go. Let us all move on.”
Before he said something that could change her mind, she left.
She managed a smile for the few dancers she passed in the hallway, but no one questioned the traces of tears. Marie knew they would know it had to do with Mal, the pair of them hadn’t been close since Jax died. Then again, he’d pressed his hand with her too soon after his death, everyone had heard that screaming argument.
When she reached the hallway leading to her room, she let her shoulders drop, finally let the weight she felt on them show. It made her sick to think that once upon a time a fight with Mal would have had her begging to make up with her best friend, but things had changed. He’d gone too far.
She didn’t understand how he couldn’t see it.
She stood in the doorway to her room, letting her eyes adjust to the dark before she stepped inside. Marie thought about closing it, she was too ill after that fight – the idea of someone coming in and curling up with her… That it might be Maleo…
But closing it would be odder than leaving it open. She always left her door open in case someone needed a cuddle. In the end, the thought of another closed door bothered her more. Maleo wouldn’t come in after their talk, not with Naj sleeping in her room.
It made her sad, but she couldn’t deny her relief either.
She took a few steps towards the bed, shedding her clothes. As she stepped out of her pants, she caught sight of Nat and Naj and froze.
How many times had she come in on Jax and Nat, fast asleep after a hard night’s dance? They’d go to bed long before she did and when she’d finally have tired herself out, she would come in and he would be curled around her, his long form matching hers. Her tail would be curled over his hip, his dark curls blending with hers.
She pressed a hand to her mouth, barely noticing that her palm glowed in faint pulsing lines. Before she could cry again, she turned her head away, only to stare at the dresser.
The dresser held all her drawings of Jax. Everything she couldn’t bear to leave on the walls afterwards. The reminder of his high cheekbones, his gentle smile, his strong jaw, his wry sapphire eyes.
She hadn’t been able to get rid of them either, they were all she had left.
The thought that it had almost been two years surfaced and she shoved it back down. She’d been avoiding thinking about it. Everyone had. No one wanted to remember that awful anniversary.
A sudden light caught her eye and she hurriedly swiped a hand over her tail, extinguishing the tip. Her hands worked over the fur and she fought not to cry. She’d been doing so well.
Marie focused on her breathing, trying to ignore the pang in her heart as she recited mantras Jax had taught her to relax and regain her calm.
When she could feel the cooler air around her, she opened her eyes again. It didn’t hurt so much when she looked back at Naj and Nat this time. He wasn’t Jax. His hair was straighter, shorter. His face was much more angular, almost gaunt. His eyes had been dark, far from Jax’s lighter blue. He was taller than Jax, leaner. His torso looked almost too thin, his ribs painfully apparent.
For the first time, she found herself wondering what had brought him to Asylum. He looked so… Overtaxed.
She wondered how long it had been since he’d laughed.
Her concern for him distracted her from her own pain and she slipped into the nest beside him. She tucked as close as she could to him without touching, but letting her tail slip forward to cross with Nat’s. It felt strange, to not just wrap herself around him like she would have with any other dancer, but she didn’t know if he would mind. Sometimes newcomers wanted space at first, until they got to know their fellow dancers. And he had said that her heat was overwhelming.
She fell asleep still debating how close she should lay to him to keep him comfortable, but also still comfort herself.