Thomas said, “You have no sense of fragility.”
No shit. Lily was a dancer. She’d been breaking her body against the stage and the barre since she was six years old; little girls who couldn’t take the pain never made it sur les pointes.
What had that make Nina, then? Pretty, fragile, brittle Nina, with her pastel winter coats and white cotton shrugs. Lily’s photo-negative reflection, all spectral shades of white and blue; Lily saw her sometimes in the far back of the mirror, dancing, either a bloodstain or a bouquet of red roses clutched to her middle. Jesus, Nina and pain had done everything but make friendship bracelets for each other.
“I’m trying,” Lily said.
“The White Swan is innocent, virginal. She loves with her whole heart and it never occurs to her that there’s anyone who could betray her. But you—so intent on making sure the audience knows you’re in on the joke. Every time I see that knowing look in your eyes, it spoils your performance. Now: again.”
Lily danced. She remembered Nina’s port de bras, so goddamn desperate and needy and perfect, like some weak-stemmed flower reaching out for the sun. She couldn’t get it right.
Thomas cut the music off. “Enough.” He exhaled through his nose.
“I’m sure this sucks for you,” Lily said. “It must be a hell of a lot more fun giving somebody one-on-one tutorials to play the seductress, right? You must have gotten to touch Nina in the line of duty, the way she talked about you. What are you going to do for me, pipe in ‘Like a Virgin’ for inspiration?”
He half-closed his eyes. “Do you know that whenever I push you to find Odette, you give me nothing but more Odile?”
Yeah. She knew. She pushed her hands back through where her hair had come undone, feeling the messy, sweaty strands sticking to her fingers. “Sorry. Just—give me until tomorrow.”
“We reopen in four days,” Thomas said.
Lily ignored that. “I heard it’s the hot new thing for people to say they were in the theater that night. Did you know that?”
“I encouraged it.” Not a trace of shame there—she almost admired him for that. “How else do you think our ticket prices would have gone up high enough to support us closing down for two weeks so we could mourn her as she deserved?”
“Your little princess,” Lily said.
“Dance the part as though you were her,” Thomas said, “and not just as though you wanted her.”
The man knew how to make an exit. He left her there like that, the practice room door clanging shut behind him.
Had he actually known anything? Probably not, Lily decided as she gathered up her bag. Thomas, like most company directors, wanted to come off like he had some all-seeing, all-knowing sway over his theater; he had a habit of throwing shit at the wall to see if it would stick. He hadn’t been in on what had seemed, back then, for a while, like a joke—Nina’s adorable baby-lez crush on her.
Lily had gone to see her, before the last act of her performance.
“Hey,” Lily said, “you were amazing.” She steamrolled right past Nina looking at her like she was a ghost—if she’d just danced her ass off like that, if she’d just sealed her place in ballet’s history, she’d be on another fucking planet too. “Seriously. I’m sorry things got so messed up between us. Just—holy shit—totally blown away—”
Nina grabbed her by the chin, a bruising finger-and-thumb grip that opened Lily’s mouth at the same time as it brought her head down, and then Nina’s lips were on hers, Nina’s tongue hot inside Lily’s own mouth. Lily pressed against her, muffled and enthusiastic, kicking the door closed—she’d see the black scuff mark on her shoe later, like some fucked-up courtroom exhibit. She couldn't get enough of Nina, this delicate white chocolate confection of totally unexpected richness; couldn't get enough of the rough scrape of Nina’s blunt and ragged nails against her skin.
The way she'd danced. Lily had gotten wet just watching her.
Nina said, “I want to taste you,” and there was something dark in her voice, something low and almost like a growl.
They only had fifteen minutes, right? But she’d done crazier things than this. She nodded frantically, spreading her legs, and she felt Nina roll her tights down.
Lily felt like every nerve ending was in tune with what was happening—it was what dancing and ecstasy gave her every single time but what sex so often failed to deliver. That total loss of self, that blur between her and the world, between her and someone else. The tights felt like gossamer as Nina drew them down her legs, gossamer sliding against silky skin that she knew must still have a tinge of apricot scent from her shaving cream. She felt Nina lick at her knee and her thigh, tasting what—chemicals? Sweat? Just skin?
Nina was down on her knees, the yellow lamps in the dressing room making a halo on her head—light, like the White Swan’s little crown.
“God, you’re beautiful.” Lily reached for her and ran her fingers around the shell of Nina’s ear. “You’re really something else.”
Then she shivered, just a little, as Nina looked up at her. Something—some weird quality of the light Lily couldn’t figure out—glazed her eyes red. “Yes, I am.”
She licked up between Lily’s legs, making her cry out—she’d always been loud in bed, but this, she thought, this, like Nina, was something else, this was less like a tongue against her clit and more like a match against a powderkeg, what the fuck—
“You did this for me,” Nina said, pulling back. She drew her thumb down Lily’s labia, spreading her out before she licked her again.
Lily felt like she couldn’t breathe. “In your dream.”
“You were so good.”
“I’d be so good for you,” Lily said. “I’d eat you out like I was starving for it, baby.” She had enough presence of mind—just barely—to keep herself from grabbing at Nina’s hair, that perfect chestnut array, still styled and flawless. She just let her fingers glance off, closing her eyes as Nina took over again. Feathers. Everywhere, feathers, more than she’d thought the costume even had. Everything sleek and glossy underneath her fingertips.
She’ll have to do her makeup all over again. The thought made her laugh, a laugh that felt almost drunken in how easy and bubbly it was.
Nina looked up again. Her eyes shone red. She said, “I killed you.”
“No, you are killing me,” Lily said, whimpering a little, pushing her hips out. “I’m going to straight-up die any second now if you don’t get back to what you were doing.”
“Talk to me,” Nina said, in that same unexpected rasp.
Lily did. Coming up with dirty talk had never been her problem. “I’ll return the favor for this later, I promise—not that you couldn’t just point at whoever you wanted after this and have them deliver themselves to your apartment with a bow on their neck. I mean, anyone here would die to fuck you now, seriously. But I have dibs, okay? I want to spread you out on your bed and do every filthy thing you never even knew how to dream about. I want to ice your nipples and warm them up with my mouth, ice your lips and warm them up with my cunt. I want to peel this costume off you and run one of these fucking feathers up and down your thigh until you’re falling apart at the seams.” She choked on the next words. “Fuck, Nina, Nina—”
Nina was standing up before Lily was even done shaking. There was the tiniest bit of a shine on her lips and chin, a glitter and gloss that wasn’t the makeup, and her cheeks were stained pink.
Her eyes looked normal.
It was the angle. It must have been the angle.
Nina looked uncertain now. She said, “Are you real?”
That was cute, right? Lily wrapped her arms around her, pulling her into a tight, warm embrace. “Yeah, I’m real. Not a dream this time.” She let her hands snake down, passing over Nina’s body, with all its sharp bones and corded muscles, all its lightness; she closed her grip around Nina’s ass. “I meant what I said, for the record. I’d do it now if I thought we had time.”
“There’s no time,” Nina said softly.
“Right. I gotta let you finish White Swanning up.” She pulled up her tights, straightening them out over her legs, making sure they were smooth—it was amazing what little nagging details could fuck you up, throw off your balance. She gave Nina one last kiss before she left, delighted and messy, sucking the taste of herself off Nina’s lips. “See you later, superstar.”
That night, Lily dreamed what she guessed was the alternate ending, the DVD special feature, the extended cut: she got to return the favor then and there, right on the floor of Nina’s dressing room. And afterwards, when she’d kissed and licked Nina to the kind of earthquake-like orgasm every girl asked Santa for, she sat back on her heels, smiling. She could see herself from the outside, but there wasn’t anything that weird about it. Ballet dancers were used to mirrors.
She saw herself press her fingertips against the corners of her mouth, first pulling her lips into a perfect, shy smile. Then she went to wipe her mouth clean, but what was there wasn't the glistening wetness from Nina's cunt but the White Swan makeup. She started to rub it into her skin, spreading it out like clouds. Drawing that perfect veil of innocence.
Nina watched her, red-eyed, from the floor.
“You’re perfect,” Nina said, or maybe, “We’re perfect.” In the dream, Lily couldn’t tell the difference.