Three years down the line, there are still nights when she reflexively throws up her dinner and collapses into Lily's arms, all snot and tears and bile, begging her forgiveness even thought she knows it isn't her fault, was never her fault. Lily catches her smoothing down her clothing over her stomach, her thighs, because once it's there, it never really leaves.
(Which is why Lily likes layers, because she can't tell skin from bone from fabric under a couple of sweaters. Why Lily likes jeans, because she hates her legs and the way her weight pools in her thighs and the flat slab of her feet on the ground.)
There are still times when she picks up the phone on the rare occasion her mother calls and gets into a shouting match that takes her out of her body for the next few days. Her mother calls only every few months, for Nina's birthday, for Christmas. For the first six months, she called every day and Nina wasn't allowed to have a phone.
(Lily couldn't figure out how the she-devil had gotten a hold of her phone number, until she remembered the day she grabbed every item on Nina's list from her room and saw the sepia cobwebs. It almost made her laugh out loud when she realized it: that place is stuck in the 90s and there's undoubtedly a phone book somewhere. Why it has Lily's name and number in it, she isn't sure.)
The only reason she was at Lily's apartment was because Lily's the only one who'd let her in. Aside from Thomas, but Lily absolutely would not allow that. It was bad enough to have a relationship with a co-worker. One should absolutely never fuck their boss. (“And besides,” he reflected afterwards in the smoky light of the sidewalk outside the hospital, “think of what they'd say.” Lily bit her tongue hard enough to draw blood. He reminded her of the grandfather she'd never known in all the most unpleasant ways.)
Lily scratches her back, now, sometimes with acrylic nails and sometimes with the stubs of keratin on her fingers. Sometimes they're back massages.
They're always back massages when Nina wakes up moaning and crying from a wet dream and trauma. Trauma, trauma, trauma. Nina got a complex post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis at the hospital (one of several), and that made Lily's mouth turn into a silhouette of a smile, because she's had it for years. The best thing that the anti-depressant does for Nina is quiet her sex drive; her body wants it but she doesn't and it makes her scream.
(There are a lot of things that Nina's body wants. Lily thinks it's not her body but a latex skin so tight, so old, so glued with blood that it might as well be her body. It's black and invisible at the same time. Maybe that's why the shadows don't want her to gain weight; they're worried that they might rupture and fall off. But it's okay, because Lily's been peeling them off one-by-one over the years. They'll never go away entirely. But that's the nature of the beast.)
(That's why Nina has the kind of dissociative disorder they don't specify because doctors are superstitious and anything they admit aloud could come true.)
Nina can't shower alone, three years down the line, and it's not because something will hurt her on purpose. Her vasovagal syncopy (that's a fancy name for “random-ass fainting spells” in Lilyspeak) is triggered by, among other things, standing up for too long. Sometimes. It's always triggered by weight loss ads, and ballet movies, Swan Lake, images of swans, the smell of turpentine (they found this out at Lily's artist friend's studio apartment when Nina came to watch Lily pose nude), glucose tablets, any mention of self-harm or suicide, cigarettes, and all of the little things that stack like pins and needles in the hollow shape of a dancer.
Nina's in charge, all the time, unless she's left the building. All the things that make her faint also make leave her body. She's mostly just a hollow porcelain doll waiting to break when that happens, and Lily can't do anything but tuck her into bed and give her a cat or two and sit with her. If it was bad-bad, the Swan Queen comes back, and it spews fury like nails at Lily. It hates her. It's like Nina, but more self-aware, and it saw the way Lily flinched and fumbled and panicked and it knew her trauma. Nina reads her like a dance partner and picks up where she leaves off; the Swan Queen reads her like a Bible, and Lily hated Sunday school.
The first time Lily met the Swan Queen was opening night, and it was the red in Nina's irises that could have been exhaustion or hangover or tears. The first time it talked to her was in the hospital, when Nina was trying to leave her shell. The first time it showed itself to her was when it tried to hang Nina on a black-and-white feather boa that had been moldering away in a box that Lily never got around to unpacking. (It saw a feather fall out of the box when she tried to make room for Nina. That's what really set it off against Lily. One does not make room for Nina. She makes room for everyone else, but especially the Swan Queen.)
Nina had sobbed like a woman shot and her stitches were seeping and Lily carried her bridal style to the hospital however many blocks away. She said she was Nina's cousin, just like the first time when they grudgingly let her and Thomas ride in the back of the ambulance. (Lily never stopped holding Nina's hand; Thomas never stopped avoiding the paramedics'.) They looked like cousins with their lean, hungry faces and big desperate eyes and trauma scars almost inches apart.
The Swan Queen hates Lily most of all because she is a phoenix, she is fire and life and healing, and it is black tar that turns into nothing but smoke when it's set alight. That's the other half of the reason Lily stopped smoking, because she could swear that she saw her face in the blackened lungs of a 50-year-chain-smoker in a PSA. It told her that she was those lungs, and Lily was so fixated on trying not to tear off her face that she hadn't even realized that Nina was gone.
Nina is a small and fragile and frail and cold thing that breaks like an atom and holds all the power of winter in her flesh. If she were a ballet after all (and she probably was, though they both liked to think of themselves and each other as being sappy Lifetime movies), she was The Nutcracker and the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Lily was The Firebird and the uneasy blend of Russian mythology and eastern European Christianity. (She's actually Mongolian, as she found out when she got her genes checked after a breast cancer scare. But she never knew much about her family.)
One night, she'd asked Lily if she had ever really been the White Swan, and all Lily could tell her was that she was it still. She can't look at swans, but there are soft white angel wings inked in white and watercolors on her back, her birthday present from Lily. Days later, her mom managed to get her cell number, and Lily sent back a picture of the wings, still bloody, from right after the artist finished. Then she yanked out the SIM card, smashed it with a hammer, and put in a new one—all before Nina was back from her therapist. Lily still hasn't told her.
What Lily has told her is that she dreams of wings, too, and that she herself had wanted wings on her back but her boyfriend at the time, like, hated birds and so she got the lilies instead. She would have gotten the lilies somewhere eventually, anyway. It rolled off her shoulders like she was a duck anyway, but Nina remembered (Nina always remembers) and that was Lily's birthday present—three pairs of wings made out of fire going down her back, the colors moving from bright pale blue at the bottom to a smoky orange at the top.
Six, because Nina had been diligent in her research. Six, because Lily is made of fire like too many self-help pamphlets and a book of matches. Six, because that gave her two to fly with, two to mask her burning eyes, and two so nobody could see her legs when she danced. Nina remembers everything. She's uncanny like that, and it eats away at her like frostbite.
Three years down the line, Nina still has to work on the tinkling chimes and metronome in her head and the tar's viscous grip on her heart and her body. But the frost gives way to feathers yet, and Lily is as cautious as a candle held to the pages of a frozen book of precious things. She sits at the feet of the sky and never stops singing, always ready to catch the bird shot mid-flight. Because she knows as well as anyone else that people will always shoot what they find beautiful so they can sharpen it into a weapon. And Nina knows as well as anyone else that a too-bright fire will burn itself into ashes and dust.
And even though they still wake up with the taste of death, of bile, of salt, of blood, of semen, of drought, of frostbite in their mouths, the only way out is through.