Disclaimer: I do not own the characters depicted herein.
Notes: This story's dedicated to Spider and Jeanne Robinson, who'll never read it but whose books were instrumental in its development; story and chapter titles are Pink Floyd.
Gaila thinks that her mother may have been the one to teach her to dance. She knows that one of the women in the slaves' quarters when she was very young was her mother, but she doesn't know which one, and several of them were sold before she mastered walking, let alone dancing. She likes to think, though, that her mother taught her to dance.
No, Gaila, like this - look!
She remembers warm hands folding her fingers into the right position like this, thumb and forefinger forming a perfect circle, the other fingers standing proud and long, like an eye with lashes, Gaila, the men like our eyes, and how it hurt at first, because her fingers were not used to it and grew tired easily. She remembers that it came more naturally as she grew and the baby fat melted away, and her fingers grew long and graceful, tipped with nails painted in gold.
The men liked her gold-painted nails, late at night, or in the middle of the day, as she scratched them down their backs, fingers curled into claws, but not quite hard enough to leave a mark, Gaila, some of these men come from monogamous peoples.
She remembers the feeling of her teacher's torso under her hands, one placed on the abdomen, another on the small of the back. Feel how the muscles flex, Gaila? Control it. This is your center - feel how I do this, so, and the spine and the hips make this shape? Gaila's hips went straight up and down, and she did not yet understand that moving a shoulder just so would draw attention to the swell of the breasts she did not yet have, but she remembers the hardening of the muscles and the syncopated twitch of a spine, and she listens from an antechamber to the ringing of the bells as her teacher performs for men who do not know what control there is in appearing wanton.
The next day, her teacher does not show her anything. She only sits on a chair stiffly, and corrects Gaila's feet.
Gaila's feet are troublesome; her toes are not quite straight, and cross over each other slightly when she points them. When her teacher notices this, Gaila spends three weeks sitting in a chair, pointing and unpointing her feet until she can control those muscles as well. By the beginning of the third week, she wants to weep from boredom and frustration, but she has been told she is not permitted to do so, and so she does not. The cramps run up and down the soles of her feet, and spike up through her calves to her knees, and she bites her lip as her teacher says again, Gaila, men like to be able to choose imprecision, but not have it forced upon them and so she flexes her foot one more time, and another. On the day she finds the tiny muscle which controls that one toe, and shows her teacher a flawlessly pointed foot, her teacher lifts her from the chair and sets her on her feet, and her feet do not hold her. Gaila crawls to her sleeping corner.
Gaila later finds out that to point her toes and bend her knees just so lends credence to her act when the men who buy her services are not as talented as they believe themselves to be. They like to think they have that power.
On the day Gaila dances with her teacher for a man, her teacher does not return to the slaves' quarters afterwards. Gaila stands in front of a mirror and places a palm on her abdomen, and another on the small of her back - her hands, her feet, her hips, her mouth belong to other people, but her center is hers. She contracts the muscles, and her spine straightens. Someone calls her name, and she arranges her fingers just so like an eye, Gaila, wide-open and goes to dance, in control of herself.
"Listen up, people, and listen well! Your ships will be the finest vessels Starfleet's engineers can produce! They may also be leaky buckets! The basic systems of any ship are well-protected, but in the event that they fail - and they will fail at some point, you can be sure of that - I will not have it said that any member of my class did not know how to handle themselves!"
Gaila, with the ease born of having grown up needing to be able to repeat back exactly what was said at any given moment (a talent which has so far been invaluable during one or two very dry classes), keeps an ear on their "Introduction to Practical Astronautics II" instructor's fearmongering and diverts the rest of her attention to the cadet next to her. The girl has a death-grip on the soft rope which circles the room at shoulder height, but her face is composed. Gaila, one arm slung through a loop in the rope, taps her on the shoulder.
"Good move putting your hair in the braid," she says. "You usually just have it tied and then loose, don't you?" Gaila's own mess of curls is tied down tight at the nape of her neck, then doubled back through the elastic, a style which is not at all becoming, but which she's come to favour.
The other cadet lets loose a breath with a huffing sound, and smiles ruefully, arching an elegant eyebrow. "Yes. A second-year told me someone choked on their hair and died once. It doesn't seem very likely, but why take the risk? Besides, I didn't want to get it stuck in these" she says, and detaches one of her hands from the rope long enough to wave her hand demonstratively. It, like Gaila's and like the hands of the four other cadets in the class, is wearing a thin glove of some tough material, cinched with velcro at the wrist, and with a little patch of male velcro at each fingertip. The six cadets all wear similar booties designed along similar lines, and the walls, floor, and ceiling of the gym they're in are carpeted in female velcro, soft and fuzzy. There's a soft current of air moving through the room, and it's pleasantly cool on Gaila's cheek.
There is a lessening of the constant hum that the cadets have grown used to, and something changes subtly. She flexes her arm against the rope it's looped through, and grins in delight as her feet come unstuck from the floor and do not fall back down. They're starting to drift, though, and she feels a little like she's falling, so she uses the rope and the wall as leverage until she can get them back down. Then, braver, she tries again. She's forgotten all about the girl next to her for now, but then she notices that the instructor has stopped talking, and is letting them explore this new dimension, and there are soft gasps and nervous laughter beginning to fill the room. She laughs, herself, quietly, and then again, louder, enjoying the unfamiliar feeling of unmuted laughter born of sheer pleasure. Then she stops and gapes, as do her classmates, because suddenly -
"You're upside-down, dude. Sir." It's a cadet she doesn't know, who is now turning red in embarrassment at his gaff. The instructor grins.
"I'm not upside-down," he says. "You are."
Gaila takes this in. She looks at him, and at her feet on the ceiling, her feet are on the ceiling, and she's upside-down and grabs at the rope with her hand and pushes off with the unvelcro'd sole of her feet, and swings around the rope until she's right-side-up again. Other cadets follow her lead, except for one who has removed the emergency sealable pouch from his belt and is using it, while everyone else does their best to ignore the noises he's making. Eventually, they get themselves all oriented again, and are just about to feel comfortable when -
"Introduce yourselves!" barks the instructor, and they look at him as though he's suddenly grown a second head. "Introduce yourselves. This is as good a time as any, and you're going to get real friendly with each other over the next two weeks, so you should know each other's names. You! Name and favorite color."
"Uh," says the guy who called the instructor 'dude'. "Gary, Gary Mitchell, sir. Silver."
"Good, well done, Garygary Mitchellsir. You next."
He's pointing at her.
"Gaila, sir. Red."
"Gaila what?", says Gary, and she wishes he'd shut up, but she turns her head, raises her chin just a little, and says, "just Gaila."
Then it's the girl next to her's turn, and she turns to Gaila and smiles, before saying "Uhura. Just Uhura, sir - and I like red too."
The other three cadets introduce themselves, and then the instructor grins suddenly, and this time Gaila catches it - a shimmy, something not quite visible. and he's flipped himself forward, and is floating head down and facing away from them. Another shimmy, and he's looking up at them. They all start to push and pull at the ropes and skid their hands along the walls. "Oh, fer crissake," he drawls, and they stop to look at him again. "You're not here to wallcrawl. Push off. The fan'll make sure you don't get stuck floating in the middle of the room for more than fifteen minutes, and I'm sure one of your buddies can push off a wall and lend you some momentum to speed up the process. Not too fast, though. Remember, you don't have weight anymore, but you sure as hell have mass, and the infirmary's groundside. Like this, look."
He shimmies again, and motions at them to spread out. They wallcrawl until there's plenty of space, and then... then they look ridiculous. The instructor's drifted along to the floor - wall, Gaila reminds herself. There's no floor here, or ceiling, just six walls - and is smirking at the flailing of arms and legs. "Enough," he says, after a few minutes. "This is air, not water, and you're not going to succeed if you keep trying to swim like that, not without giant fans attached to your hands, and those make it damn hard to work in an emergency. Use your spines, not your extremities."
"Sir, could you come here, please?" Gaila calls, ignoring the looks being sent her way because just like that, she gets it. He obliges, still with that infuriating smirk on his face. "May I, sir?" she says, gesturing to indicate what she wants, and he nods, and she links a foot through a loop of rope for balance and places her hands on him, one on the small of his back, and one on his abdomen, the center of gravity around which he will pivot. He does so, and she concentrates, removing her hands at the last possible instant to avoid getting kicked in the face. This is an instant too late to avoid certain other contact, and as he rotates back up to face her the smile is gone from his face. She can't help herself - she winks at him, and her new friend Uhura's face is rigid. He pauses, and winks back, solemnly.
Gaila pushes off from the wall very gently, and flexes her muscles against each other, and she's pitching forward, a little off-balance, perhaps, and she's forgotten what the instructor did to stop, but she is spinning end over end in space, eyes wide, and she throws her arms wide and laughs loudly as she tumbles very slowly towards a wall, because this, this is what dancing should have been all this time.