A/N: For MorganBriarwood in Yuletide 2011. I made up all kinds of stuff about ballet for the sake of the narrative and I'm not even sorry. c:
There's a radio in the back of the studio and it's always playing her thoughts.
Listen, I'm sorry. That wasn't really me.
Is it childish to personify a bad habit? Give deviant behaviour a personal name? Yes, Nina decides. A little. It's been getting harder to relate to what she has described in group therapy as her swan-self. A silly word for the creature, but she feels that avoiding its names might allow her to win back some small power, some sense of independence, even some freedom. After all, it's still alive. Her voice is burned and quavering with the constant need to confess this and then claim innocence and then cry the real names of her assailants: Odile and Odette, von Rothbart and the prince. Instead she only describes the pain she used to feel — in her muscles, in her stomach, in her heart, in her head — and says it's been getting better. She's been allowed to skip a lot of sessions lately. When she does attend, she only mouths hollow confidence. Real confession would be too embarrassing to bear. She is beginning to understand that her old ways of thinking were skewed and her nostalgia for the swans' fanaticism, their black and white judgements, is not normal. She understands that the life she was trying to build for herself nearly killed her. She can hear her own voice saying: "I was controlled because I can't control myself. I did it but I never allowed myself to do it." These sound like transparent attempts to evade responsibility for what has happened.
They are also things she can say with wholehearted honesty, even if they do not appear true. That wasn't really her. It was the work of a stranger swimming in her bloodstream, tapping against her body's inner shell at waltz rhythm. One, two, three, balancé. Gripping the barre so tightly that her hands are blue and white. Whose hands? Nina feels them moving, sees them floating bloodless nearby, but does not know if that alone is proof of ownership. She distracts herself trying to sense them fully, falters briefly as she moves her foot to second position, recovers. Fortunately the mistress was looking elsewhere, but it doesn't matter. That wasn't really her. The hands belong to a much younger girl; the foot is Lily's. The whole class is waiting en pointe for Nina's next instruction.
The radio sours briefly on static.
Nina feels sick.
It's a good feeling, in a way. Splitting the blame with someone else. She is not alone. Even if her companions are — were — a bad influence, she has support. She wouldn't dance a duet without a partner. Couldn't. Facing the day is too much sometimes, it's too much if there's no one beside you, inside you, holding you up. That's how Nina feels.
The therapist taught her this, if little else: you are not your mistakes, you are not your problems. And that's a relief. She is not her own emotions. She is not her unexpressed cruelty or her crippling anxiety. She can walk into the coffee shop across the street from the school, order a medium candy cane hot chocolate with skim milk and then get angry, furious, when she sees the barista grab the 3.25% milk carton instead. It's cathartic to stand there, fuming and saying nothing, hating the drink she has already paid for, accepting it with a smile, faintly thanking the girl who hands it over while a hot weight twists in her lower belly because the drink is wrong and she cannot consume it. She is not the anger. She is not what's wrong. She only has to cope.
People are chatting as they come inside. One young man holds the door for her. Nina avoids eye contact and escapes onto the cold, gray street. The smell of hot sugar and cinnamon breaks off of her like a wave of dragon's smoke. Pollution wraps around her and she smells nothing. At the first trash can, she disposes of her six dollar hot chocolate and it lands with a horribly loud thump in the bottom of the bag and someone might be staring at her.
When Nina still lived at home, her mother would fry two eggs for her on Saturday mornings. Invariably, one egg would be flipped more messily than the other, and it was ruined, unacceptable, and the yolk curled and crisped and bled across the other things in the pan and she had wanted it all so badly but suddenly none of it was worth having and she wasn't sure why. This is how she feels now; about the drink, about being a ballerina, about surviving. The drink is a small thing; she doesn't regret throwing it away, though the anger and the craving remain. The rest is too big. Too big to discard. She took the instructor's job Tomas offered her because the school was too much a part of her life. She asked for the job, really. She demanded it because something on the radio told her she still needed to dance, though she knew she could never, ever perform again.
She is not the girl she once was. It's a relief to think that this must mean it isn't all her fault.
Because how could she face her mother or her friends or her students or the other instructors and admit that she is the one who took solace in peeling skin and picking calcium deposits off her back; that she was the one who flexed the all muscles in her pelvis while she watched other people dance; that she was the one who crooned every time the first small lump of food slid back off of her tongue and into the toilet? She can't ever let that person speak to the ones she has come to admire. She can't be that person and still be the Nina they know.
"Hey, so," a stranger on the subway says to her, looking undecided. "Do you recognize me?"
Nina pretends not to hear the question over the dry, metallic squealing of station brakes as they catch the wheels. She scurries onto the open platform as soon as she can fit through the doors. Feels her anxiety subside to a manageable level when they chime closed behind her. She could wait on the platform for another train but a voice on the intercom warns her against it. The next train will be worse. She trusts it and spends forty-five minutes, still frightened, walking home.
Exhausted. Eight hours of tutoring raw, young dancers, then a hike through the cold. Drop into bed, rigid. The springs in the mattress seem to catch her bones individually, one by one, like piano keys striking wires that have been tuned for the great, papery ears of bats.
Sleep, she thinks. She calls it like a missing pet: sleep.
And sleep comes dutifully, stepping slow and long and hungry, eyeing the soft parts of her body. It sinks into her joints and sockets. It silences the beats that do not answer to the name Nina, tapping against her inner shell. For a while she doesn't hear anything. Not even the knocking at her skull that says: mother, let me in. Not even the knocking in her belly that says: mother, let me out.
This happened quite a while ago, but she still thinks about it, picks apart each word and gesture for clues to secret messages:
"I really don't think it's a good choice for you," Tomas had told her, but his arms were folded and his chin was raised; he was challenging her to see what would happen. Her reaction would make up his mind for both of them. Even before she asked, she had known that he would be won over so long as she acted lucid, so long as she moved fluidly and didn't seem too worried about anything. It was still hard for him to let go of another hand-picked principal dancer so soon. If he thought she could still act as a promotional piece and a tribute to his eye for talent, he would let her return in whatever role she pleased.
"I'll be fine," she decided to say. "It's been months. I've recovered physically. I can dance. I have to dance."
"Technique is your strong point." Tomas had pushed at his lips with one finger, looking at her like she was indecipherable. "Most of the company could use a few lessons from you, honestly. But how do you think people are going to act? They won't like it. They'll be pissed, some of them."
"So." Heart stuttering. Frustrated. She fidgets. "Am I hired? Can I sign something?"
"I'm casting you as a interesting girl who isn't going to completely fuck up her second chance at doing what she loves, yes. We'll write it up tomorrow. I want you to keep in mind that this is an awful idea. You don't have teaching experience. Your lessons will probably be a mess. I don't know why I will let you get away with this."
She had smiled, undeterred. That was all.
He nodded then, as if suddenly reassured, and they shook hands.
"And stay away from Lily," he added.
Her expression didn't change, but he saw what she was thinking. He must have seen something. She needs to know what it was. He'd seen something and nodded at it again, shortly, right before he let her hand go and walked away.
It's bad luck to look at the clock when it says 6:09. Nina has the alarm in her room set to wake her at 6:15 so that she'll miss it in the morning. That way, her day won't be cursed, she'll have half a chance to get through it without being injured or sick or approached by someone who makes her uncomfortable. She is significantly less likely to cry, throw up, or embarrass herself on days when she doesn't see nine after six looking at her.
She opens her eyes before the alarm. Looks at the clock though she didn't decide to look at the clock.
As fast as she can Nina turns away but it catches her like a little red hook in the corner of her eye. 6:09am. Rotating on the screen in the back of her head, 6:09. Something is crawling through the zero, it looks her up and then it looks her down. 6:09.
Nina's left ankle starts to ache.
The little studio where she has been posted to hold lessons is always cold. The walls are concrete and mirror, the wood flooring is as hard as stone, and the ceiling leaps into high rafters and ventilation pipes. A speaker set in some dark, unreachable corner plays French songs from the forties. Fortunately this is one of her favourite stations. She has no idea where the tuning and volume controls might be; generally, she doesn't worry about it. White noise is nice sometimes and, even when it's not, a dancer has to learn how to work through distraction.
Adolescent girls make up the attendance of her classes almost exclusively. That's what she requested and it was the only real demand she made besides the job itself, so Tomas honoured it without complaint. At first she thought it would be difficult, that she was punishing herself with sets of a dozen flatfooted visions of her own bittersweet history, but the girls are hard workers and most of them seem quite happy. They are quickly becoming dear to Nina and she isn't sure what to make of that. Watching them grapple with intermediate sequences makes her feel weightless with pride. True, there is always the unpleasant fact of comparison and judgement, the catty competitive spirit that grows up in practitioners of an elite art, but Nina will not tolerate cruelty among her students. They should study for their own confidence, she believes, and not out of fear of failure or ridicule. Whenever a new group comes filing into the room every other hour, she catches herself grinning at them dumbly, still in disbelief that they would look up to her now, that they would listen and learn in her care.
The after-lunch group is always the most energetic. She knows to brace herself for their arrival and even in spite of that she is frozen with shock on the day that they are trailed by a much taller figure, a girl with artfully messy hair, a slouch and a cigarette. It can't be, she thinks, but it is.
Lily waves, notices the unlit cigarette in her fingers and sheepishly tosses it in her bag before the other girls see it
Nina is trying not to withdraw. She is hoping that her sudden tension is obvious only in her own mind, she is not coiling back toward the blank safety of the wall, Lily is a hallucination. Lily is not really here. The girls in the classroom are already at the barre, gazing at her with huge, hollow eyes. Inside their skulls, candleflames are flicking expectantly. Some of them are bouncing up on their toes impatiently. Lily pulls a face and gestures slowly at her, theatrical, are we gonna start? She doesn't say anything but Nina can hear her voice.
"Hi, everyone," Nina says weakly, at last.
"Hi, Miss Nina," they all say in unison, and Lily looks around, impressed. She tips an imaginary hat in Nina's direction and suddenly the lesson is far too long. Two hours cannot pass quickly enough.
For two weeks, after-lunch is a horrible session. Nina does not acknowledge Lily's presence openly, but she feels it oppressively, like oil coating her skin. The radio spews garbled sounds at her and Nina excuses herself at the break to throw up in the bathroom, something she hasn't done for nearly a year. The word relapse pulses in her head, the splitting seed of a migraine. She makes herself drink some water. She wants to go to Tomas' office and scream that Lily is the only real friend she has ever had and why did he have to make her a swan, and then go buy some strawberries to swallow whole. If she did that and cut open her stomach, would they roll out onto the floor unchanged?
She goes back to class. Teaches for another hour. Stands by the door when her girls have been dismissed, bids them good-bye one by one. As Lily approaches, smiling and clearly about to speak, Nina steps in front of her. It's a terrifying act. Her ankle, still warm and gummy since the last 6:09, flares unpleasantly. The pain would subside if she just stepped aside again. Instead she sets her shoulders.
"Can we talk?" she says, as she flips the door shut behind her.
"Uh," Lily replies.
"What are you doing in my class?" The words come out in an outrageous hiss and Lily raises an eyebrow.
"It's not invite-only, you know. I elected to take it. Officially. Check your list. Also, what's wrong with you?"
Nina opens her mouth. Closes it. She is not what's wrong. Her silence is choking and cold. Finally she says: "Everything that's hard for me is easy for you. I really didn't mind trying to be friends, but it can't — I can't be around someone who makes me feels so stupid. You know, it's like... I'd dance and you'd dance and you would actually be enjoying it and I just wanted to die."
Lily nods very slowly, her eyes soft with understanding. "Wow. You feel stupid because you really are sometimes. We've got to hang out soon." In a smooth motion that makes no sense, she hugs Nina and reaches around her at the same time, stretches until she can reach the door and open it. She slides away and the hug becomes a salute. "I'll see you tomorrow."
Spoken like a promise. To Nina, it sounds like a threat.
Back home, she turns on the television and mutes it before she has put down her bag or taken off her coat. With the remote clutched in her hand, she stands in her tiny den and stares at the screen, seeing every twenty-third frame. She fills in the blanks with cuts to white, serpentine coils crushing unhatched eggs; girls removing their faces along with their makeup after a show; Lily walking expressionless through the dressing room in black latex as tight as paint, her body a flexible tube that shows no imperfections or outlines of bone; Beth en pointe before her mirrors in the principal's vanity, turning slowly in full costume like a hawk waiting to be unhooded and sent back out to stage.
She rationalizes with herself to get through the squeezing pressure testing her ribs. It's not hard. Mundane explanations are usually much more straightforward than sinister ones. Lily doesn't know how vividly she figured in the end of the world. She has no idea, doesn't even realize that this is a new planet, a new life, a long way from the end now that things have started all over again. She thinks she is being supportive. She thinks she is not creeping sideways, ankle over ankle, like a girl made of melted plastic. She thinks she would not clot and mangle feathers, whether black or white, if she touched them.
When she is ready to look up again, she studies the room and is proud of her design sense. Nearly all the furniture and lamps and appliances she now owns have been scavenged from second-hand stores and sympathetic acquaintances, but their arrangement has attained a certain unity. A collection of unlike objects, making up a complete room. She is glad to be home. The television mouths at her that she should eat, so she wanders to the kitchen, remote still in hand.
"I think we should try something complicated. You're bored just standing at the barre all day, right?" Nina says, and the girls look at her with wild interest, taking the suggestion as praise. It is, they're very good, but they're also freshly full of yogourt so high in sugar that they might as well have been drinking pure corn syrup. Nina remembers seeing Beth flit backstage during performances, squeezing little beads of honey into her mouth before soaring back on stage. Then, afterwards, her anger, her shaking muscles and snapping reflexes. Nina always wondered where it came from, what it meant. Perhaps she was only tired. Exhausted, all the time. Why did it have to work the other way here, she wonders; why were these girls always so dreadfully alert?
"Get a partner," Nina says, and walks directly over to Lily.
Immediately the other girls latch onto one another, then start squabbling and negotiating over merit, manners and popularity. In about two minutes they've fallen into pairs, and Nina takes another moment to rearrange some of the partnerships; based on height differences, she says, but it's really because she can't stand letting the four little hellcats of the group get their way all the time. Lily is watching her with interest, saying nothing.
When everyone has been organized, Nina announces: "We're going to dance pas de deux as well as we can. Everyone has to take turns doing the boy's steps."
Someone draws a breath, already sounding nasal.
"I don't even want to hear 'ew'," Nina says sternly. "In my first big performance, I was dropped during a lift. A lot of things went into that, but I wasn't holding myself properly. We can't really do lifts. I just want you to see how much work your partner has to do. Maybe you look at him and think he's not working hard until he has to pick you up, but the ballet isn't just about you. Even if you're a principal dancer and you're on posters, you can't do the whole production yourself."
Her mouth goes sticky on the last few words. Some of the girls are going to roll their eyes and think she is preaching, but some might listen, so she continues: "We'll start with the ballerina being guided in a pirouette, like this."
And she starts to demonstrate without speaking to Lily at all; blooms suddenly en pointe and puts out her hand, which Lily takes smoothly and dutifully, walking in a circle to lead her through a slow revolution. Halfway around, her hand goes to Nina's hip, a steadying gesture; and Nina steps away on a reflex, Lily follows, their arms arc and their hands battle like birds. Finally Nina manages to make herself stop. Lily accepts some of her weight warily, looking pleased, and they balance each other for a moment, motionless. Easing back onto her heels, Nina does not look around at anyone in the room, only says: "Okay, try it."
She is expecting grumbling and tight muscles. To her surprise, the girls instantly obey. She watches their first clumsy attempts to lead each other, corrects some girls trying too hard to be stereotypically masculine, then stands numb and lets them practice. They include the improvised flight and it looks good. It looks like something out of Swan Lake. Lily is right behind her. Nina can't see her, but she is there. She's coming closer.
"So." There's a pause that Nina is supposed to bridge with a response but she really doesn't have the energy. "This a really good idea. You could even warn me or something next time."
"No," Nina replies, and her voice is a high, floating sound disconnected from her vocal chords. She knows that her eyes are too wide and she is shifting her focus to often. Somehow her muscles lock and vibrate simultaneously. "You do your best dancing when you're not sure what's coming next. It's really beautiful. Rehearsing takes it down a bit. Did you study freestyle in Chicago?"
Lily comes up next to her, hooks her wrist into the curve of Nina's elbow. "Actually, yeah."
"That's cool," Nina whispers.
Lily has the soft, dark eyes of a creature from the forest. Having her stand so close is unnerving; one thoughtless motion might send either one of them scampering away. "I guess. It was fun for a while, anyway. The scene was kind of pretentious. Oh my god, there was this one guy who wanted to do a nude performance and it was basically... him. With naked chicks. Everywhere. I couldn't even do it. I thought it would be really funny to have it on my résumé but I seriously couldn't, you wouldn't believe this individual and his constant need for abandoning clothes." She tilts her head. It makes the tendons in her neck snap into visibility. "Are we going to switch?"
"Yep," Nina replies, stepping forward, away, with a sigh. Breathing again. To the class: "Okay. Trade places."
"I heard an interesting story recently," Tomas says.
Nina is inordinately glad that he didn't use the phrase: a little bird told me. Being in his office is vaguely unpleasant and she tastes a waxy shell of old lipstick on her mouth. Things are different now, he seems to look at her as if she is older and also perhaps a little off-putting, but the holograms in her memory remain as vivid as blood. She had stood there. He had said this. Even if she weren't thinking about it, the speakers on his computer are playing the whole dialogue over again, just to make sure that she stays on her guard.
"The other instructors are complaining because their students like your classes better. I hear you're teaching the girls to dance as boys. And that you," and he sounds almost like he is chiding her now, "make a truly unique Prince Siegfried."
Irritated that she must defend her lesson plan, Nina drops her arms to her sides. Manages to catch herself before she stamps her foot like a teenager. "I'm teaching them to respect other dancers, especially a partner, and it's just too bad if anyone — "
Waving a hand to dispel her voice, Tomas shakes his head. "No, I agree, I think it's a very good idea." He points at her as though she is a butterfly to be pinned down on velvet. "A great idea. That's why I told everyone to shut the hell up and leave you alone." Then he stops himself, twists up his lips for a second and leans back in his chair with a leathery sigh. "I want to see it."
She folds her arms again. Quickly. "See what?"
"Whatever you and Lily have in your repertoire."
"No. I don't know. We don't have a repertoire. You told me to stay away from her and she came to my class and we dance well together. What difference does it make?"
"I do, because I think that would be an incredible thing to take to the stage —"
"No," she says flatly.
"— and just think about the reaction people will have when we announce that we're doing Swan Lake again after what happened. They'll think we're crazy."
Nina only stares, wondering if he intends to be so shocking and callous, or if it's simply an unconscious talent.
"Think about it. Lily is the lead, you are the prince. So you're not the central focus," he reminds her bracingly. "We can cast some of the men as a swans maybe, like the flock is a partnered ensemble and Odette is alone. I think von Rothbart should be a woman. What do you say, would Veronica do it? The choreography has to be ripped out of its own nose, you know; you can't be doing any traditional lifts. Honestly, we'll have to rethink every single act. It'll be an original production really, but one inspired by what we've endured as a company."
"All right," Nina hears herself say through the tinny speakers.
"I'll rehearse it," she says to Tomas. "I can't do this for a crowd again, you know I can't."
"You might change your mind," he replies wistfully. "But anyway, what's the point in talking about it if you turn out to be awful? Let's see it this afternoon, you and Lily. I'm curious, certainly."
"Of course you are," Nina doesn't say. It would be rude and inappropriate and she is distracted now by visions of what she would see if she danced the full role of the prince: herself, approaching timidly, then hungrily; herself, flying away.
"I don't really know if I'm allowed to ask," Lily says, stepping out of a saut du chat like it's a streetcar. "But, you know. Everyone's kind of wondering. About what happened."
Nina tries to stare her down, a task made difficult by the fact that she cannot bring herself to make eye contact.
"All right, that's okay." The way she says it, the way she rolls back into training and takes Nina's hand with her, makes it seem genuinely acceptable to hide from all her problems forever and ever. "I just want to ask if it was anything I did."
"No," Nina tells her quickly, lightly; too quickly, too lightly. Even to herself, she sounds unconvinced.
"Well." As Lily's hand rises and opens like an apple tree in its first blossoming season, Nina traces it upward. She sees her fingers climb like a strangling vine. "Then I wanted to ask if there's anything I can do, I guess."
For a moment, they dance in silence, then stop and repeat. Stop and repeat. Nina hates trying to speak while the metronome in her head is in motion. It's impossible to enter the choreography now that she is stuck in her drab human body with its little lungs, little legs, stunted arms. Nearly as bad, they don't have more than an hour a day to rehearse; Nina doesn't dare ask for personal time that would postpone her lessons. Since Tomas won't allow her to stay after classes — and Lily couldn't be kept at the barre after five in the afternoon if she was chained there — lunch hour is the only fair section of open time in which they can meet and practice. If it was up to Nina, she wouldn't eat; she considers it a waste of ten minutes. Lily, however, insisted and even tried to make it an indulgence, but Nina balked from this idea. Eventually they agreed on a compromise: Nina eats sandwiches made of whole wheat bread and lean meat mechanically while Lily wolfs pizza and a bit of candy.
"You worry too much about other people," Nina decides at a pause.
Something is stuck to the bottom of Lily's left shoe. She folds and hops gracelessly as she removes it. "How's that?"
"I don't know." For a moment Nina blanks completely; she really has no idea why she should feel that way. Then she thinks of the cheerful apologies, the attempts to clear the air or calm her down. "You always had to make sure we were okay. Even when I was just being," and she trails, thinking now of her consistently cold, quavering reactions.
"A bitch," Lily supplies. "Yeah, that wasn't 'people', that was just you. I'm not a fan of people generally. You seemed like the weird one though, and I thought that was cool." An afterthought: "Sorry."
"That's okay," Nina says absently. "But everyone likes you. You're," she doesn't want to say something as grade-school as popular so she settles on, "a favourite."
"Yeah, it's been all right. We'll see how things turn out. I transferred because I wasn't getting along with my company back home, and I used to be great with everyone there too, so. You never know, right?" Suddenly her hand is open and outstretched, an offer or a demand. "Come on."
"You're not leaving." This isn't really a question but Nina says it with enough dread and anticipation to twist the words, turn her voice upward.
"No." Lily laughs and steps away. "Not if I can help it. This place is so fucked up." Smiling, she looks at Nina as if they are close together and the light is poor, making no connections. "I really like it here."
"Yeah." Nina isn't sure what she's in agreement with, but the conversation is allowed to lapse. As her concentration returns, the distance between her body and its motions sharply decreases. Her arm is the gesture, her foot is the step.
"So how did you get better?"
Nina puts her hand against Lily's side, feels her fingers slide into the spaces between her ribs. She could reach through them and scrape around in search of a parasite's second, smaller heart. Instead, a deep breath. Send her away. Nina has not told this to anyone else.
After forty-five minutes of training and shortly before the after-lunch group has crashed into the room, the radio begins to loop an ominous, stripped-down noise, the bare beating of a heart without meaning. It goes on long enough that Nina begins to look around for an immediate threat, some stranger or sentient shadow coming to press her with interrogations.
But it's Lily, bouncing one foot en point and back down, striking her heel on the floor. She is watching it closely. Without looking up, she seems aware that Nina has taken notice of her. "Yeah, so I told Tomas he should come by at the break today and see what we've been up to."
The heart rhythm goes silent, though Lily's foot is still moving. Nina feels her lungs turn to ash.
"Oh. No. No, you've got to tell him we need a few more days. At least a few more days. We're not ready. No. We're really not."
She is not sure when she started biting her fingers and nails and cuticles, but she's been doing it a lot lately. Lily comes up and covers her hand with one of her own, and Nina puts her lips on one of Lily's knuckles as if she is thinking very hard. She looks at nothing, tries not to cry or just start biting Lily instead.
"Seriously relax. There's nothing to be ready for." This with utter, careless confidence. "We didn't need to practice. I mean, I'm glad we did; it's better than just hanging out somewhere. But the very first day, Nina, you remember that?" Now she is pulling the long sleeves of Nina's sweater down over her hands, either to protect them or warm them up or both. "Some people just go together, it's easier for them than dancing alone, right?"
Lily kisses her. They have been dancing together for weeks, so it feels like only one intimate gesture among many. Soon the girls will be arriving and she should be nervous about that but Nina finds she has more pressing concerns. She wonders, what first day and what happened? Where was Odile then? Where was Odette?
Certain parts of the city are a little strange. Not dangerous or even unpleasant. Just odd. Nina's apartment is located in one of these unusual pockets just outside the entertainment district. The rent is very reasonable and the building is attractive but no one really wants to live in the area; nearly half of the available spaces might be unoccupied at any given time. Climbing the stairs to her floor, Nina will see no one, hear nothing, as if she is the only inhabitant of a great, dusty skyscraper meant to house thousands.
On most days she enjoys the sense of isolation and worries about preserving it. When asked where she lives, she guards the exact address, answering vaguely or — depending on who wants to know — even lying explicitly. She has avoided the topic with Lily altogether by going to Lily's condominium and never offering or accepting any other options. She assumed that this could only be a temporary measure, but has proven herself very capable in delaying the inevitable. By the same token, the demonstration for Tomas has been put off for weeks and was just pushed back even further; he has a week-long trip to Russia coming up and Nina convinced him to postpone the meeting until his return. Perhaps that was why she felt so calm, why Lily's sudden interest in seeing her home didn't rattle her at all. Nina offered a few hollow excuses — it's messy, I haven't set everything up the way I'd like it — and then simply agreed to let Lily see it. A fair concession. She remembers hearing somewhere that you must make sacrifices for the people you care about.
The subway is not far from the school, but it was dark by the time they left and streetlights on solid darkness make Nina unhappy. Lily sees it in her, possibly, and suddenly begins to complain about the flat slop of winter snow underfoot. She is talking about a summer she spent in Miami working at a beachside bar with an excellent view of all of the boogie board accidents she could ever have asked to witness. Nina is laughing indulgently and it only feels forced for a little while. Underground, tranquility returns to her even though the subway platform is nearly abandoned, which is irregular for a few minutes past six. A well-dressed man watches them from a den of low light for a time and, oddly, he does not make Nina very nervous.
She lingers near Lily, but her attention strays back to him. Vaguely, she wonders if he is real.
Five minutes pass and the train has not come. The man is turning toward them, then approaching them and Nina decides to be amicable. He smiles and says hello, which is normal, and he asks if they would like to accompany him back to his penthouse, which is less normal but still not otherworldly. Demure and somewhat embarrassed, Nina says no. Immediately, he looks agitated.
He says: "I think you should both come with me."
He is, however, staring only at Nina. She wants to reply: what will you do if we don't, turn us into swans?
"What's your damage?" Lily says, and she is advancing on this larger, stronger person as if her body must be made of steel. "She said no, right?"
Belatedly, Nina realizes this lean, possibly imaginary man looks like he is dressed for a show; the opera or even the ballet. It's pleasantly surreal. When he grabs her wrist, she is surprised because the audience is supposed to love her but not so much that they climb up on stage and try to drag her away. There is something bright chuckling in his hand, a needle or a cell phone or a knife. Nina is annoyed. She is aware of Lily circling behind her, vanishing for a long weightless moment, and when she reappears in the corner of Nina's eye she is bringing a burning white light with her. It seems dangerous. Nina twists free so suddenly that even she is astounded, and Lily grabs the man by the front of his jacket, throws him off the platform and then yelps — laughs? — when he vanishes under the arriving train. She grabs Nina's hand with flexing, webbed fingers, looking at the mess she cannot see. Nobody else cries out. Nina leads her into the train. No operator comes out to confront them. The doors chime without delay. Still clutching Nina's hand, Lily sits and stares at an ad and does not speak. Does she seem upset? Nina tries to recall if she has done anything to upset her, but nothing comes to mind.
Odile is like death in nature, a thing to fear with clean, pure honesty. She is an aggressive stranger. She is the magician's daughter, the thief, she might murder, she might lie; and if she did these things, she would certainly take pleasure in them. Odile is a demon, and demons are dreadful, inhuman things.
Nina may not feel quite human, but she knows that she did not enjoy what happened. Today, yesterday, last year, the year before. She shies away from the image of it all, as Odette shies from the affection of a prince; intrigued, unconvinced. It occurs to Nina that, in her own experience, Odette is the one who raged and killed to protect a dream. Odette is the one who tried to choose death for herself.
In her warm, crowded kitchen, Nina makes a pot of licorice tea and stirs it with a little sugar. Sweetness always soothed her when she was young. She takes a cup of it into the living room, sets it on the coffee table.
"Let's dance for Tomas," she suggests. "Tomorrow."
Curled on the couch, Lily looks at her, watches all of her motions. She has Odette's dark eyes. They are soft with a bleak, triumphant thought. Nina can hardly bear to see such a thing so she leans forward, kisses her to close them, remembers that her stomach is scarred and puts Lily's hand there as a reassurance to both of them, sealing the demon's closed mouth.
There's no need to be afraid of names, Nina tells herself. Of the creatures they may summon, yes, but not the names themselves. In order to grow stronger, she must at least learn to face the names of those who have loved and hated and fragmented her.
Nina thinks that Odile may be the stranger who made her strange, but she knows that Odette is the cruel one. Odette has always been inside her, plucking tendons and pulling loose skin. Now, she is only a costume on another girl's body. Now she is the Swan Queen seeking a prince; and as the prince, Nina will betray her with another. Not a perfect allusion, perhaps, but one that is strangely poetic.
Lily extends her hand eagerly. Her smile is genuine and too self-assured for the white swan, but Nina is drawn to it. There may be people holding their breath, watching, and lights that clear Nina's ears of static. She is not sure if that is real. She is not sure if that would be good for her. Still, this is the right thing to do. The right place to be. Now, as always, Odette makes her want; and for the first time she can remember, Nina is able to touch her.