She was dancing the White Swan. The choreography was different. Slower, harder, like she was trying to move through water instead of air. It had been getting harder every time.
She blinked as she went into a plie: hadn't it?
She shook the sensation off and concentrated on the movements of her feet and arms, every perfect angle convincing her that she had no reason to worry, that despite everything that had happened, she was in control.
Her breath caught as a dark shape darted past the corner of her eye. What had she meant by that? What had happened?
That was when the music changed. All at once, hard and sharp and seductive, and she could feel the presence behind her. It should have been Rothbart, or the Prince, but instead she felt something else. It was hot and close, and the hands she felt skim across her stomach as it danced with her were small and delicate and insistent. It pressed against her back, and she sucked in a breath as she felt the curve of breasts against her spine.
When she spun around to face it, there was the Black Swan, the smug, seductive smile cutting into her, and she gasped because for some reason the face looking back at her wasn't her own. As the smile grew, Nina felt her breath grow short.
"Oh god, sweetheart!"
Nina tried to blink, even the dim light stinging her eyes after the absolute darkness of the stage. She slowly furrowed her brow. Stage?
"Sweetheart? Please, come on, please tell me you're awake. Just squeeze my hand, that's all you have to do, squeeze my hand."
Nina groaned. Her hand? She felt the pressure, and slowly managed to open her eyes enough to focus on the appendage in question, currently wrapped in two others and trailing a thin plastic tube. She followed the shaking hands up toward a face covered in tears. Nina blinked. "Mommy?"
Erica's tears began again, her hands nervously squeezing up and down Nina's arm as if to make certain she was really there. "Oh, sweetheart, don't you ever do anything like that again! I am so sorry, I forgot how hard it is, I shouldn't have tried to push you. I never should have let you start in the first place..."
Nina swallowed, then winced at the ragged scratching in her throat. "Mom?"
Erica took a deep breath, blinking her tears back. "I love you so much, Nina. And I...I'm going to make this up to you, I'm going to make everything better, you'll see."
Nina slowly and carefully raised her head; her spine was stiff, but she seemed to be able to move. In fact, except for a dull ache in her stomach, she wasn't really in any pain at all.
So what was she doing in a hospital bed?
"Ms. Sayers?" Both women turned toward the hirsute, middle-aged man standing in the doorway with a half-awed, half-relieved look on his face. He placed a gentle hand on Erica's shoulder. "I don't want to interrupt, but it's very important that I check Nina's vital signs and talk to her a little."
Erica jerked up from the folding chair at Nina's bedside. "Yes, of course. I should really...I need to call Susie, everyone in the company's so worried, I..." Erica leaned in to grasp Nina's arm once more. "I love you so much, sweetie. I'll be back soon, all right?"
Nina just nodded dazedly. When her mother was almost through the door, she swallowed. "Mom? I love you too."
Erica's eyes glistened, but she quickly slipped through the door before she could begin crying again. Nina blinked lazily, her focus shifting from the door to the smiling, bearded face hanging over her.
"Hello, Nina. My name's Doctor Gregory. I just need to make sure you're recovering, is that all right?"
Nina nodded, but her eyebrows narrowed. Recovering from what?
When the doctor raised the blanket over Nina's chest to reveal a pristine white bandage wrapped around her stomach, the memory came rushing back. "Oh my god..."
"Nina, Nina, it's all right. You're safe, and you're healing. Everyone here is going to make sure that you get better, okay?"
Nina couldn't take her eyes off the bandage. The show, the Black Swan...she'd thought it was all a dream. If not for the evidence wrapped around her belly, she would still be tempted to think so.
"How..." She cleared her throat, and the doctor raised a straw to her lips as he finished checking her pulse. It took a few swallows of tepid water before she trusted herself to speak. "How long have I been here?"
The doctor placed his warm hand on top of hers. "You lost a lot of blood, and your stomach lining was badly damaged. Your body needed some time to recover. You've been in a coma for four days."
Nina's eyes shot open. "Oh god, the show...Thomas must be...Lily..."
"Easy. Right now, the most important thing you can do is rest."
Nina swallowed and nodded. Her eyes unwittingly drifted back to the bandage. "Doctor...can I still dance?"
The bearded man squeezed her hand. "Yes." Nina let out a sigh of relief. "But not until after the stitches come out, and not without some extensive and very careful physical therapy."
The doctor blinked. "Well, I don't know, when you're feeling better we'll bring in a consultant to..."
"Stitches, how many stitches?"
He just smiled. "Too many." Nina sighed, and his hand patted hers. "I'm going to let you get some rest. Your mother should be back soon."
Nina just nodded, her eyes drifting closed.
After her mother had finally been convinced to leave her side for more than five minutes at a time, Nina's first visitor had been Thomas. He'd dutifully held her hand without speaking, trying very hard to keep the judgment from his eyes, but Nina could still see it: the look that said the very last thing he'd needed after Beth was another scandal.
She was actually relieved when he left.
Her relief, however, only lasted until the next visitor came through the door.
Nina couldn't help recoiling. According to the shrink who'd been coming by in the days since she'd woken up, it had all been stress and obsession and most if not all of what had happened over the past weeks had been in her head. But it still felt real.
Lily smiled uneasily from the doorway. "Hey."
Nina swallowed. "Hey."
Lily jerked her thumb over her shoulder. "I can come back later..."
"No. We should..." Lily's eyebrows rose, and Nina shook her head. "How's the show?"
Lily bit her lip. "Good."
"I guess you've got the Swan Queen all to yourself now." She couldn't help the bitterness crawling into her voice, and she hated herself for the way Lily's eyes cut away from hers guiltily.
"Yeah, I'm trying. I mean, I'm nowhere near as good as you..."
Now it was Nina's turn to look down in shame. Lily actually seemed to mean it.
Nina didn't look up until the sound of the chair scraping on the tile drew her eyes up to Lily's, suddenly a lot closer.
"Everybody's been really worried about you. David's been pulling his hair out."
Lily tried to smile. "He's a prick."
Nina managed a breathy chuckle. When she looked up to see Lily's smile widen encouragingly, her own disappeared. "I'm sorry I've been such a bitch to you."
Lily smiled gently. "Look, I...I know you don't really like me..."
"No, really, it's not...I don't even know you. I mean, I guess since I'm technically crazy..."
"Hey, went crazy. Temporarily." Nina tried not to roll her eyes. "My point is, I like you. I mean, you seem nice, in kind of a fragile, wounded bird way. Just...if there's anything I can do to help with anything...I will."
Nina just nodded. Then she sucked in a breath as Lily's hand reached out to gently squeeze her own as the other girl rose from her chair. "Well, I should, um...I'm sure David and Veronica and your mom want in here."
As Lily neared the door, Nina cleared her throat. "You can...come back and see me again."
Lily just smiled. "Okay."
"You were right."
Lily's hand paused on the door handle. "About what?"
"'Little princess'. He says it to all the girls."
Lily nodded sympathetically. "He's a prick." She opened the door with a wink. "Get some rest."
One by one, every member of the company came into her room to awkwardly hold her hand and talk in broad strokes about her recovery and the show without ever stepping too close to anything of real substance. But then, Nina had begun to think with a smile, they were ballet people; dancing around things was what they did best.
And the main thing they were dancing around was why Nina was in the hospital in the first place.
"I stabbed myself." Lily looked up from the window, her features far more schooled than Nina had ever seen them. "I snapped under the stress, and I started seeing things that weren't there, and I stabbed myself."
Lily's mouth moved impotently, and Nina simply smiled.
"I just needed to say it out loud."
Lily pushed the tray from the hospital's cafeteria off her lap and leaned in to rub the back of Nina's hand. "It could have happened to anyone."
"Not you." Lily's eyes went wide and locked onto Nina's in shock. "You're like...you act like it's just a job. Like it doesn't even matter to you, and you shouldn't be any good with an attitude like that, but you are."
Lily's expression was growing nervous, but Nina just shook her head. "I mean, I was always trying to be like my mother, like..." Her eyes went wide. "Oh god, Beth!"
Lily's hand tightened on Nina's as the pale brunette tried to jerk out of bed. "Whoa, what about her? They sent her home like a week ago."
"But her face..."
Lily shot her a confused glance. "Looks fine for someone who walked in front of a car. She found the stuff you left for her."
Nina shook her head, as if doing so would separate the real memories from the fantasies.
"Actually, I think she wanted to see you, but Thomas wouldn't let her. Said she was looking a little too smug about it."
Nina let out a breath. "God, this is so confusing. I mean, every time I think I remember something..." She blinked up hazily at Lily. "Did we at least go out for drinks?"
Lily grinned. "Yeah. We drank. We rolled. We met Tom and Jerry. Then I took the former back to my place while you took me back to your place."
Nina's cheeks flashed crimson, and Lily's grin broadened. "Yeah, bet you thought I forgot about that."
Nina was saved from further embarrassment by a nurse cracking open the door to let the two women know that Lily's time was almost up. As she rose, Lily cast a mischievous glance down at the bedridden brunette.
"You know, you never did answer my question."
Nina's blush grew even hotter. "What?"
"Was I good?"
Nina closed her eyes, the sight of Lily staring up at her from between her legs flashing in her mind. When she looked back up, Lily's smile had disappeared, and she was headed for the door.
"Yes," Nina managed to murmur.
Lily turned, eyebrows raised. "What?"
Nina swallowed. "You were perfect. You were just what I needed."
Lily grinned shyly. "You're welcome."
"Until you turned into me and tried to smother me."
Lily winced as she pulled open the door. "Sorry about that."
Slowly but surely, things were starting to fall back into place. She still couldn't always tell which of the less outlandish occurrences had been real, but with the help of the psychiatrist who stopped by twice a week she was at least starting to get them into sequence. And with every new memory slotted into place, she grew more amazed that she and her mother were still able to speak to each other.
"Doctor Gregory says you're making very good progress, but they want to keep you here until your stomach can handle these...pills they want you to take."
Anti-psychotics. Nina'd had it all explained to her already.
"I've been getting your room ready. Once you're back home, everything will be fine, you'll see. I've been talking to Thomas and..."
Nina sighed. "Mom. I...I can't keep doing this."
Erica's mouth fell open, but after a minute of silence she sighed. "I just want to be there for you. But...I know I didn't help you like I should have. If you really still want to...find your own apartment, I'll help you do that. I want to be there for you however..."
"No, Mom, not just..." Nina closed her eyes. "I don't...know if I can keep dancing."
Erica's smile turned brittle. "Of...of course you can, sweetheart. Doctor Gregory says that once you..."
"Mom, I know you want me to be...I think about getting back up on stage, and then I think...how long before something like this happens again?"
Erica's hand tightened around her daughter's. "Sweetheart, you've never wanted to do anything else."
"I know, Mom, but...I just need to...think about things. And rest," she added pointedly.
Erica cleared her throat. "Of course. I'll let you get some rest. I love you sweetie."
"I love you too, Mom."
Nina's gaze followed her mother to the door, then tracked her through the window set in it. As Erica turned to head down the hallway, she slammed into...Nina craned her neck...
The young brunette gazed over her shoulder toward the room, exchanging a few words with Erica. Whatever the older woman said made Lily's eyebrows rise, and her response caused Erica to scowl. Nina blinked in shock as the two women began yelling at each other.
When Erica finally threw up her hands and stormed away Nina snapped her gaze back to the outside window, but not before reading something on Lily's lips that looked very much like 'Fuck you'.
Nina looked back toward the door as it clicked open, Lily meeting her eyes nervously. "Hey."
"So, uh..." Lily tried to grin. "I don't think your mom likes me."
Nina chuckled. "I told her I was thinking of moving out."
"And that you were thinking of quitting."
Nina looked down. "I bet you'd like that," she mumbled, only half teasing.
"Yes." Nina's eyes snapped up, going wide at the frankness in Lily's voice. "I actually kind of like you, and I mean, yeah, you're good, but I don't think it's worth trying to kill yourself before every performance."
Nina actually managed to smile at the dig. "It was after the first act. And I wasn't..." Nina's cheeks flushed and her eyes dropped back down to the blanket.
"I do like you. I mean, I don't really have...friends. But since I've been here, everything's seemed...clearer, and I really do like you, so..."
"I killed you." Nina looked up into Lily's wide, puzzled eyes. "You were trying to steal my part, and I stabbed you. Not me."
Nina didn't realize she was crying until she felt the moisture beading on Lily's shirt against her face. "Hey, it's okay. It's okay. We're both fine."
Nina let Lily's arms tighten around her, great heaving breaths tinged with the scent of Lily's hair. When she felt Lily plant a kiss on the top of her head, Nina finally collapsed.
"So what else can you do?"
Nina looked up from her tray; normally, Lily wouldn't have stayed late enough to have dinner, but the nurses seemed to be giving her almost as much leeway as Erica lately, not to mention more than a few significant glances.
"I mean, if you're going to quit, and I'm not saying you should, at least not until after you get out of here, because without the company's insurance, the copays on this are gonna be a bitch..." Nina chuckled. "But...what else do you like to do?"
Nina just shrugged. "I don't know."
"You don't know?"
"Well, what else can you do?"
Lily leaned back, popping a brick of green gelatin into her mouth. "I'm good with numbers. I always thought it might be kind of cool to be an accountant. I like kids. I'm a pretty good cook. I waited tables to put myself through school. And if all else fails, I'm an amazing fuck."
Nina choked on the sip of water she'd just taken. By the time she'd regained control of her breathing, her blush had almost faded. "I've never done anything else."
Lily just nodded. "Well, you could teach. I mean, your technique's perfect, and isn't that what disgraced former prima ballerinas do?"
Nina smiled sourly. "Disgraced?"
Lily laughed. "It's a compliment."
"I guess. I mean, I don't think I'd be able to face working with professionals, but...maybe with kids."
Lily smiled. "You'd be great." She glanced down at her watch. "Ugh, I should go. Show tomorrow."
At that, Nina looked up at the clock hanging next to her bed; she hadn't realized how late it had gotten.
She watched Lily walk away in the dim light, eyebrows furrowing at the way the ballerina's hips swayed back and forth. When Lily reached the door she looked back over her shoulder, and Nina snapped her gaze back up to Lily's face.
"So, um...when do you get out of here?"
Lily bit her lip. "If you really don't want to move back in with your mom...you could stay with me. For a while. I guess."
Nina just smiled. "Yeah, I...okay. Thank you."
Lily shrugged. "Don't mention it. And get some sleep."
As she watched Lily slip out the door, Nina sighed. Sleep was the furthest thing from her mind.
Nina stared into the mirror, searching hard for any deformities, any mutations, and sign that her convalescence had been the real hallucination, some dream to lull her into a false sense of security. But there was nothing. Just the garish yellow walls of the bathroom in Lily's apartment...well, she supposed that should be her and Lily's apartment.
Nina exhaled deeply, then tipped her head back, swallowing the red horse pill dry. It was the last one in her prescription. Her next session with Dr. Mayer would tell her whether she'd be refilling it.
"You need a ride?"
Nina ducked out of the bathroom to find Lily pulling on a shrug over her workout clothes. The motion made the ballerina's firm breasts press out against her leotard, and Nina managed to suppress the worst of the blush. "No. Toby's taking me in. If you could come pick me up at the end of the day..."
"Yeah, no problem." Lily shot her roommate a grin. "Good luck, teach."
"All right, everyone, I've got parents staring at me and tapping their watches." The assembled students laughed, as did said parents. "Everyone get a drink of water, then get going. You all did wonderfully."
Nina had found it easier to adapt than she'd ever imagined; the kids seemed to like her, and while she'd expected it to be even more stressful being in charge of other people, it had given her a kind of freedom she'd never known before.
Still, every time she saw one of her students move just perfectly, the way she used to, the pain in the pit of her stomach would return. Dr. Mayer said it was just psychological, that it didn't mean anything was wrong with the wound. What he didn't add was that that meant it probably wasn't going to go away.
Nina shook her head and moved through her students, congratulating them on their form and telling them what to practice, making certain to compliment 9-year-old Jeff; in the beginning, he hadn't even wanted to be there, but he was quickly becoming her best student.
When he smiled shyly and walked off toward his parents, Nina scanned the rest of the crowd in case any of the parents wanted to talk to her. Instead, her eyes caught on Lily watching her with a smile so warm it made the nagging ache in Nina's stomach disappear.
Nina crossed the studio to her grinning roommate as she bid goodbye to the rest of the students and their parents. By the time she reached Lily, she was grinning herself. Lily wiggled her fingers. "Hey."
"Hey." Nina leaned in on instinct. It wasn't until she was pulling back and saw the look in Lily's eyes that she realized she'd kissed her. On the mouth.
Nina practically jumped back, eyes whipping around to see if any of the children or parents headed out the door of the studio had seen, but no one seemed to be staring. Of course it didn't really matter, because the one person who Nina wished hadn't noticed her slip-up couldn't possibly have missed it.
"Oh god. Lily..."
Before she could begin to hyperventilate, she felt Lily's fingers, still so much hotter, interlace with hers. "Nina. It's okay."
"I'm sorry, I just...you're my best friend..."
"Nina?" The teacher looked up into her roommate's smiling eyes. "I said it's okay."
Nina just shook her head in relief. She turned toward the door, hoping that she as much as Lily would be able to put the incident behind them. But the tug of Lily's fingers still intertwined with hers pulled her back. "Nina?" Nina turned back, only for Lily's other hand to reach out to hers. "I meant 'it's okay' as in 'you can do it again'."
Nina just blinked uncomprehendingly, and Lily broke into a brilliant smile. "I actually do kind of like you."
Nina stepped forward gingerly, her breathing going shallow as Lily's hands tightened around hers. When her lips tipped down into the ballerina's, Nina felt like she was about to cry.
After all the time she'd spent fighting it, the Black Swan had done exactly what she was supposed to do: kill the White.
And now that the White Swan was dead, Nina was finally starting to feel alive.