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anna karenina, or, how to court a lady in moscow

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The next two days are an endless slog. Her mother comes to the Bolshoi and greets Olga Smirnova like an old friend. Which- they are, Héloïse supposes. But still. Olga Smirnova is not in the business of being friends with people. In any case Héloïse is granted a salad and a few stilted encouraging words and once she has gone off again rehearsal resumes as normal.

The break time is spent competing with Alexey on important matters such as who can lift their leg higher. Héloïse wins, but barely. Alexey’s cabriole is very narrowly better (because it is his signature and also he has just done Spartacus) which means he poses an excellent challenge. Gaily they accuse each other of cheating. There is a referendum led by Elizaveta Arkadyevna which ultimately settles for a tie.

But that is about all the fun Héloïse has on the first day. Something is always going wrong. One of the violinists is out of key, the tempo is too slow, Vodopetov’s hands slip and Héloïse nearly goes face first into the floor, the lights are a half-second behind and the enormous wall behind them is lit the wrong shade of pale fuchsia. Again and again Balakov shouts “No, no,” and the violins screech to a halt and everyone goes back to where they started. Héloïse has the energy to do nothing more than beg an extra ticket from the office before she returns to the apartment and falls asleep with makeup still on.

By the second day Balakov has pulled almost all his hair out and even Alexey is getting snappy. Héloïse, in desperate need of air, calls Marianne at the lunch break. She is perfect although she spends much of the time cooing over Fyodor’s new pot which is apparently gold and sequined and undoubtedly stupid. In any case she patiently listens to Héloïse’s whingeing, and, once she is done, suggests a game.

“A game?”

“Yes, a game. Get Alexey to play. Lighten things up.”

The idea of a game is instantly seized upon and grapes are hurled across the stage with near-meteoric force. It ends in Héloïse and Alexey having to go around and pick up all the squished ones, complaining loudly when one is particularly messy. But it gets everyone in a better mood. And Alexey shares his quinoa with Héloïse.

It is good to have a friend, Héloïse thinks.

On the day of the show Héloïse arrives promptly at seven. They go through the motions of class for an hour before Balakov gathers them with a weary wave of his hand.

“Go home,” he orders. “Stretch, roll out, everything. Yoga if you need to. Eat a light lunch before one. No overexertion. I don’t want to see anyone here until four o’clock. Thank you.”

And they are dismissed. Héloïse packs up her things and changes and when she goes out Alexey is waiting by the door for her, wearing the tiniest backpack Héloïse has ever seen. They spend all of the bike ride to his bus stop attempting to do a grand écart on the handlebars of Héloïse’s bicycle and only cease when Alexey nearly tumbles into the road.

She tells him about Marianne while they are waiting at the bus stop. In vague terms, because there are people around. But he lights up and she knows he understands.

 

It is hardly past eight by the time Héloïse returns and finds her mother is already up and coiffed. Between quick neat bites of oats and milk she informs Héloïse that she will be out for the day but a healthy lunch must be attended to and bandages must be applied prior to performance. And the pointe shoes have been painted, yes? Good. And, added after a moment’s hesitation during which she lingers at the door, she is proud of Héloïse.

Then the door closes behind her and Héloïse makes a flying leap for her phone.

The call goes through after four rings. In a sleep-cracked voice Marianne mumbles, “Héloïse?”

“Hi.” Héloïse squirms guiltily. “Sorry to wake you.”

“No, it’s alright. What are you doing? Is something wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong. Just- there’s no rehearsal today, and I was wondering-“

“Do you want to come over?”

Héloïse lets out a breath. “Yes.”

“Of course.” Marianne sounds slightly more awake now. “Please. Tolstoy has been asking where you went.”

“Has she?”

“Yes. Every hour. Insistently. What time, do you think?”

“Whenever you’ll have me.”

“So unhelpful.” Marianne yawns. “Okay. Ten minutes?”

“I’ll be there.” Héloïse balances the phone between her shoulder and her chin, and, with minimal swearing, manages to get on the bicycle. For the first time in a while the sun is shining and the temperature has crept up overnight. Spring is sneaking into Moscow, slowly but surely coaxing tiny green buds from the wary embittered trees. Soon it may even be warm enough for shorts. The season will only last a few weeks, so the best must be made of it- maybe Marianne will take her to go swimming.

Across the street Héloïse sees an old couple come tottering peacefully out of their front door, practically swaddled in enormous coats and fluffy scarves. Upon feeling the warmth of the day they exchange matching looks of pleasant surprise. The sight stirs a memory buried somewhere in earlier years– “when people know each other for a long time,” her nurse had said, nodding to the crotchety old men playing chess in the park, “they start to look the same.” Héloïse listens to Marianne’s soft tinny breaths over the phone and wonders if perhaps they will start to resemble each other. If one day she will look in the mirror and see little pieces of Marianne mixed in.

Suddenly there is the blare of an impatient car horn behind her. Héloïse whirls and delivers a glare that would have warmed  Balakov’s heart, but the damage has already been done. Marianne makes a startled soft sound and wakes up.

“Sorry.”

“No, it’s fine. I have to open the door for you anyway.” But already she is dozing off again, her words slipping together.

“Don’t sleep,” Héloïse whispers, “don’t sleep, don’t sleep. Just until you let me in. Here, I’ll tell you how it looks outside. There’s lots of birds around, and the sky is sort of blue. But mostly clouds. It’s cold but in a nice sting-y way. There’s a woman selling those potato pastry things from a cart. Are you asleep?” A little humming sound. “No? Good. I’m sorry for waking you up. Just five more minutes.”

“Mm. I’ll be awake.”

When she reaches Marianne’s door it is already open and Marianne is smiling back at her, the phone dropping from her ear.

“Hi.”

“Hello.”

Her hair is sticking up in directions Héloïse hadn’t known were possible. She is wearing Héloïse’s purple Bolshoi shirt and grey shorts and blue knee-high fuzzy socks. She sleeps in Héloïse’s shirt?

“Are you planning on coming in?”

“Right. Yes.” Héloïse wheels her bike inside and takes her shoes off. She lines them up painstakingly even with the other shoes in the rack because Marianne does not like mess. And then she kisses Marianne.

“Your hands are cold,” Marianne murmurs, but kisses her back, slides her arms about Héloïse’s shoulders and lets herself be crowded back against the wall. After she has been appropriately greeted Marianne grabs Héloïse by the wrist and pulls her in past the kitchen, turning down the little dark hallway, and into- the bedroom.

Héloïse needs a moment.

More bookshelves, lining all of one wall. A window, the curtains open just a crack. Plants, of course, everywhere. A large bed with its white duvet flung to one side. A frankly irresponsible amount of pillows. And Marianne, already climbing onto the bed with a sigh.

“Are you getting in,” she mumbles. Her eyes are closed, but when Héloïse makes to join her they shoot open. “Wait!”

Héloïse freezes. Marianne sits up, roots around in the sheets, finds nothing. Turns to the duvet and picks it up, shakes it a little. From within a mrow issues forth, and, shortly after, Tolstoy, looking slightly disgruntled to have been woken.

“There you are. Okay, you can come up now.”

Héloïse resumes the undignified crawling motion. The very instant she reaches the pillow Marianne is curling around her, their legs tangling together. Her breath is warm on Héloïse’s neck and in a matter of minutes she is asleep. Héloïse might have been bored if it were anyone else but luckily it could not be anyone else and so she is perfectly content to lie there and trace little hearts over Marianne’s bare arms.

Then, from behind her-

Hrmm?”

“Shh.”

Another mew, but quieter.

“What? What do you want?”

Tolstoy hops down off the duvet pile and makes a rapid advance toward Héloïse’s head, who for fear of waking Marianne can do nothing but blink very threateningly. After a brief inspection she is deemed satisfactory and a fluffy silver tail brushes over her cheek.

Héloïse wrinkles her nose. “That tickles.”

This time it lands in her mouth.

“Tolstoy!”

Beside her Marianne stirs a little and Héloïse freezes, shushing the cat. Who is a cat. So the injunction is not heeded. Instead Tolstoy starts toward her.

“Don’t-“ Héloïse warns, but already there is a tiny paw on her ribs, testing out the new walkway. Immediately a second paw; Tolstoy stretches luxuriously in both directions and then flops down on Héloïse’s chest. All the air leaves Héloïse’s lungs at once. She is astonishingly bony for such a small thing and seems very content in her new sleeping-place judging from the sudden steamboat-like purring.

“Tolstoy,” Héloïse wheezes, but cannot find it in herself to be too upset. “Tolstoy, get off. Bad cat.”

The purring intensifies. Somehow a tail ends up curling around Héloïse’s ear, flicking occasionally against the side of her head. Marianne sighs and presses closer, too, her chin tucking over Héloïse’s shoulder.

And from there she is trapped.

 

An hour later Héloïse has managed to extract Alain Mabanckou’s Verre cassé from the stack on the bedside table and is nearly at the end. After a brief whispered argument Tolstoy had agreed to serve as a book-rest in exchange for scratches behind the ears. They have reached a happy compromise and Héloïse is reading about Holden Caulfield’s appearance in a Congolese bar by the time Marianne makes a little snuffling sound and wakes herself up.

“Good morning.”

“Mm.” Marianne’s hand, meandering over Héloïse’s belly, encounters the fluffy mass stuck firmly to her chest. “Hi, Tolstoy.” She is exquisitely bleary, her face pushed into the pillow beside Héloïse’s neck. “What are you reading?”

Verre cassé.

“Ah, French colonialism.” Marianne rolls over and blinks up at the ceiling. Then her head turns and she brushes her nose against Héloïse’s cheek. “It’s nice to wake up to you.”

Héloïse tries to kiss her but Marianne pushes her chin away, her brow wrinkling. “No, don’t. Morning breath.”

“You already brushed your teeth once. And I don’t mind.”

“You will when you taste it.” She is insistent unfortunately on this matter, already rolling out of bed and landing on her feet with a muted thump. There is the distant sound of the sink, then an eternity in which the book is finished and Tolstoy is paid some absentminded attention before Marianne returns with her hair now tied up. She leans against the doorway a moment, sunlit. And they look at each other.

“Come on,” Marianne says. “I’m hungry.”

 

In the kitchen Héloïse is put in charge of keeping Tolstoy off the counter while Marianne opens the can of cat food. It proves a difficult job and by the end of it Héloïse has very nearly broken a sweat.

“Here, you little rascal.” The dish is set on the floor and Tolstoy pounces on it with such vigour that it goes skittering across the kitchen. Marianne rolls her eyes and goes back to stirring whatever outrageous caramel concoction is being reheated in the little pot. Which leaves Héloïse free to come up behind her and kiss her shoulder. And up her neck. And to her ear.

“Stop that,” Marianne chides, without any bite. “What if I burn my hand off?”

“I’d take you to the hospital.”

“And coddle me?”

“Endlessly.”

“Very well. Continue.”

 

At breakfast they sit side-by-side and hold hands on Marianne’s tiny kitchen table. There is fruit involved, with a heap of disintegrated muesli (“It’s the healthiest thing I have. Might be stale, though.”) for Héloïse, and a muffin with plenty of whatever was in the pot (“Dulce de leche, I had it in Chile.”) for Marianne.

“Do you want to try it?”

Héloïse is very sceptical but opens her mouth anyway. It tastes about like how she expects it to- sweet, rich, very sticky.

“Oh sue me, not all of us have ballet diets,” Marianne grumbles. “I think it’s good.”

“I agree.”

“It’s alright if you don’t. That’s- mmph.”

It tastes much better in Marianne’s mouth.

 

Some time later there is a pitiful yowl from Tolstoy, who is-

“Oh, no. Must you always make a mess?”

“Mrow.”

She has just sat in the rapidly cooling pot of dulce de leche. Now there is treacly caramel stuff all over her behind. Marianne sighs.

“We will have to bathe her,” she says mournfully. Then, realising, “or- I will. You don’t-“

“We,” Héloïse corrects, somewhat bewildered. “Unless you-?”

“No, I- I mean if you plan to stay-“

“I do.”

“Then you can help.”

“It shall be my pleasure,” Héloïse says magnanimously.

 

Famous last words. They make an attempt at conversation while wrestling Tolstoy into the bathroom sink but it is difficult to hear any salient points on the French colonial legacy over all the shrieking. Once it is done Tolstoy stalks off with her tail sticking straight up.

“She’ll be back in a few hours,” Marianne says. Now that the problem has been addressed her full attention is on Héloïse. “You are very-“

“I am what.”

“Nothing.”

“Say it.”

Marianne clears her throat politely. “Soapy.”

“Yes, well. Your cat is a demon.”

“She is not so bad when the heating goes off. Sorry about your shirt, by the way. Would you like to take a shower?”

Héloïse leers. Marianne goes delightfully pink.

“Stop that,” she says, and swats at Héloïse’s arm. “No, I can’t. If I shower with you then I will get nothing done the whole day. And you told me yourself you’re supposed to be resting.”

“Fine.” Héloïse strips off her wet shirt, consoling herself with the thought of pilfering more of Marianne’s clothes. When she reaches for the waistband of her pants there is a soft choked sound from where Marianne has frozen by the door.

And then Héloïse is pushed back against the sink and kissed within an inch of her life. There is nowhere to balance so she clings to Marianne, one hand in her hair and the other at the back of her shirt trying to stabilise but there is no use when Marianne is palming shamelessly at her chest and they won’t even make it to the shower at this rate but-

Marianne hauls Héloïse forward and off the sink but unfortunately keeps backing up afterward, all the way to the door. Her hair is deliciously mussed. “Okay,” she says. With finality, but her eyes linger. “Okay. Go. Goodbye. I’ll bring you some clothes. No, don’t look at me. I have work to do.”

 

After a quick shower and an exploration of the various soaps and shampoo bottles, Héloïse puts on the clothes that Marianne has furnished her with- an oversized white shirt, a pair of sweatpants, and underwear. Underwear. Pretty lace underwear, a dark forest green, which Marianne has almost certainly worn. Which Héloïse will now wear. And which Marianne will, hopefully, take off of her.

But all things in due time.

Marianne is sitting cross-legged at the head of the bed with an stack of papers in her lap and a pen tucked behind her ear. She is using a different pen to scribble notes in the margins of the paper. Very likely she has forgotten about the other pen.

Héloïse snags a slim book at random from the bookshelves and sits in the space that Marianne has made for her. She has gotten very comfortable, her shoulder pressed to Marianne’s and a few pillows propped up behind her, by the time she opens the book. And finds that it is in Japanese.

From beside her Marianne snorts.

“What,” Héloïse demands.

“Nothing.” Marianne’s eyes are still fixed on her papers but there is a smile twitching at her mouth. “Just glad to see you’re venturing into Bashō.”

Well, Héloïse can hardly put it back now. She inspects the book closer. Luckily in the margins Marianne has made a copious amount of notes, including writing out the Latinised pronunciation. Beside each poem she has written a French translation, and something that might be Bengali or perhaps Thai. Still, much of it is lost on Héloïse. She forges valiantly through a few poems before Marianne takes pity on her and sets her stack of papers on the bedside table.

“Give that here,” she says.

Héloïse willingly surrenders the book and scoots back so they are facing each other.  “Are you going to read to me?”

“Not if you make fun of me. I’m still learning Japanese. But- here. This one’s well-known, you’ll likely have heard it before.” Marianne clears her throat, eyes darting self-consciously up to Héloïse for a moment before settling back on the book.

Furu ike ya / kawazu tobikomu / mizu no oto." Then, in French, “He paints a picture. Often the first line will have something about the season, you know, autumn’s wind. But here he shows us a pond. An old pond- and then the ya which acts as a separating element but also brings the next line, like a- I don’t know exactly what we’d call it, maybe anticipation. Then, motion. A frog leaps. Something changes, we see this pearl of an image behind our eyes. And then after that, the splash. That’s kanji, in Chinese it’s shui, water. Same thing here. The Cid Corman translation is my favourite, even though it doesn’t keep the syllabic form intact. Old pond / frog leaping / splash. One point for your subjective translation argument, hm?”

“It is,” Héloïse agrees. Her hand is starting to drift, sliding now over her thighs, tugging at the thick warm fabric of her sweatpants. There is a restlessness but it could be the heat. Or something else. “Read me another.”

Marianne turns the page. “Kare eda ni / karasu no tomari keri / aki no kure.” Her voice lovely and melodic, the accents lilting. A lazy familiar pressure begins to coil in the bottom of Héloïse’s stomach. “He describes a withered old branch. Ni stands for ‘on’, as in on top of, so we see something perched on the branch before we see the thing itself. Karasu no tomari keri, the crow on the branch. And aki no kure, our setting. The evening in autumn.”

“Mm.” Héloïse’s hand slips down now between the waistband and the lacy green underwear. This is a dangerous game but Héloïse is listening, she is being very good. She is paying attention.

Akebono ya / shira uo shiroki / koto issun. The first line sets the scene at dawn. Early dawn. Daybreak, perhaps.” The angle is all wrong and Héloïse’s wrist starts to cramp. She wriggles a little, pushes her sweatpants down to her ankles. Better. “Shira uo shiroki, a- whitefish? Whitebait. A tiny white fish, gleaming. The last line, koto issun. One inch long.”

Her fingertips drag over the rough paper as she turns the page. A raw sound, rubbing right against Héloïse’s very nerves.

Aki ki nu to / tsuma kou hoshi ya / shika no kawa. Again, the seasons. Describing how autumn has come.” Legs opened, knees pressed to the mattress, an almost-stretch. Underwear tugged to the side. “Tsuma kou hoshi ya, the ya as an anticipatory particle.Beneath she is wet already. “Next line- this translation is difficult, it’s- loving a wife. With stars. Though whether the stars are in her or on her or even part of her- that, I’m not sure. Just with stars.” Two fingers sliding down, circling. The sound is quiet but Héloïse’s breath is not. It is a matter of waiting, now. “And shika no kawa, to signify that they are lying on deerskin, buckskin, I suppose. As they make love. The structure of description is like- we would say cuir de cerf but it isn’t- isn’t- you-” and finally Marianne stutters to a stop, her eyes wide and stuck to Héloïse’s hand working between her legs.

She swallows. Makes a move to set the book aside.

“Keep reading,” Héloïse says. Quiet, with authority. There will be time for that later.

With great reluctance Marianne’s eyes shift back to the page. “Hana ni ee ri,” she reads, halting. “Haori ki te katana / sasu onna.”

“And what does it mean,” Héloïse prompts.

“Drunk on flowers.” Marianne shifts closer, the book still open in one hand. “The woman armed with a sword.” She is seeking permission. Héloïse leans back onto one braced hand, her fingers never ceasing their motion. “Wears a man’s jacket.” She is on top of Héloïse now, her legs bracketing Héloïse’s hips.

“Keep going.”

Tsutsuji ilene / sono page ni / hidara saku onna.” Marianne bends down, the book’s spine finding a resting-place on Héloïse’s chest. Still she does not touch. Just keeps reading, her voice a soft rasp above Héloïse’s breath harsh with want and her fingers slipping over the wetness. “A branch of wild azalea thrown into a bucket. Behind, a woman tears the meat off a dried codfish.”

“I like that one.”

“Me too.” Marianne’s eyes are sharp on Héloïse’s face, the book forgotten. “Are you close?”

Yes. She is. “Yes,” she breathes.

“Do you want me to keep reading?”

“Yes.”

“Okay.” Marianne skips over the next page. Then the next. She is looking for something. When she finds it she smiles, a filthy slow smile that makes Héloïse’s hips twitch just watching her. “Hyoro hyoro to,” she reads. “Nao tsuyu kasha ya / ominaeshi.”

Héloïse waits. She can be patient. Even as her motions speed up and she is starting to lose all rhythm.

“Trembling, teetering,” Marianne whispers. She closes the book, leaves it there on Héloïse’s chest. “Laden with dew.” First touch- her mouth at Héloïse’s ear. “Lady flowers.”

Héloïse huffs out a breath. “Marianne.”

“Mm?”

“That is-“

“I know.”

“Dirty.”

“You liked it.” Marianne draws back to watch her. “I know you did. I can hear it.”

“Hear what,” Héloïse asks, even as she- oh. Right. The sound. She flushes, a little embarrassed but too far gone to really care. “Sorry.”

“No, don’t be. I want to hear you.”

“Okay. I’m- I-” But the sentence is left unfinished. Her eyes close. Always it is the first thing. Her spine arches, her head tips back, the breath flees her lungs, and- and-

The shudder throws Marianne off balance but she catches herself with a hand beside Héloïse’s head. When Héloïse opens her eyes she is right there, her eyes intent and heavy on Héloïse’s face. The pen has fallen from behind her ear. Her hair is messier than ever.

“Hi,” she whispers.

“Hi.” Héloïse pulls her hand out of her underwear and, in a daring move, presses it flat against Marianne’s stomach where her shirt has been rucked up. Her belly is warm and down-soft and when she sucks in a breath Héloïse feels it against her palm.

“Héloïse.”

“Yes?”

“You-“ She laughs, sort of, except it is not a laugh and she is trembling. “I’m going to have to take a shower.”

Héloïse tips her head down, toward the book still resting on her chest. “Give me the book.”

“What for?”

“I’m going to read you one,” she says, conversationally, “and you’re going to translate it for me.”

“Okay, yes, fine, yes. That’s fine.” When the book is handed over Héloïse sees that her hands are shaking.

“Even in snow,” she reads, in French, “the noon-flower does not wither in the sun.”

“You’re not-“ Marianne laughs, an unsteady sound. “The syllables. Give me the syllables. Each- each line.”

“Even in snow / the noon-flower does not wither / in the sun.”

“Easy.” Said with confidence even as Marianne’s hips twitch, seeking friction. “Yuki no naka wa / hirugao kare nu / hikage kana.”

Héloïse hums. “That’s right. Between our two lives / are the lives / of the cherry blossoms.”

“I don’t know. I don’t know, I don’t-“

“Think.”

“You try thinking like this,” Marianne snaps. Her hair is falling out of its tie and curling around her face and her arms are trembling with the effort of holding herself up. “Watashitachi-

Héloïse shakes her head. “Again.”

“This is- impossible, how am I- can you just-”

Inochi,” Héloïse prompts.

“That’s not helpful. Okay, fuck, I don’t know. Inochi futatsu- no? Is it one of those?”

“That’s right.”

“I don’t- oh.” Marianne’s eyes close, tight enough to leave little lines at the corners. “Wait. Wait. Move your hand, I can’t- I can’t concentrate when you’re doing that.”

Héloïse blinks. “I’m not even touching you.”

“Well, I can feel it. I think I- fuck, can you please- no. Wait. I remember this one. Inochi futatsu no / naka ni ikitaru / sakura- what is it? Sakura kana.

“Good,” Héloïse tells her, and Marianne lets out a sound that seems to startle both of them. Her head bends forward and suddenly there is a hand displacing Héloïse’s, except it slides under the waistband and rubs, quick and frantic.

This necessitates some thinking. If Héloïse could muster that up it would be nice.

“Are you-“ she begins. But does not know quite how to ask.

“It just,” Marianne bites out, high and rushed. “It just sounded- when you said that.”

“Good?”

“Yes. That. Don’t look at me, it’s embarrassing.”

“It’s not,” Héloïse says, low and pleased. She brushes her nose against Marianne’s cheek, kisses behind her ear. “I like that.”

Marianne growls. “Again,” she demands.

“Patience. Next poem.”

This goes on for some time, mostly because every time Marianne cannot remember a line she gets annoyed and tells Héloïse to stop distracting her. Héloïse is beginning to worry that she will run out of poems by the time Marianne lets out the noise- The Noise, she calls it, privately, because it is the sound Marianne makes when she is very very close and such a thing deserves capital letters- and asks, “Now, please.”

Héloïse obliges her, shifts her hand down and presses her wrist against Marianne’s and slips two fingers inside her. “One more,” she tells her. “A fine house / the sparrow is delighted by / the millet at the back gate.”

Yoki ie ya.” Her breath shaky now, her motions jerky. Héloïse can feel each one of them. Can feel how tight she is, how quickly she is circling. Their hands bump against one another and Marianne groans, a beautiful sound. “Suzume yorokobu- Héloïse.

“Hm?”

“Héloïse.” Marianne’s lips part. Her shoulders convulse, one hand pulling taut the sheet around Héloïse’s head. “Héloïse, I- I’m going to-“

“Good,” Héloïse says, and rubs, hard, with the heel of her palm. Marianne lets out a low agonised sound and clenches hard around Héloïse’s fingers. Her head bends down, one strand of hair falling loose from its tie to tickle Héloïse’s cheek. She is so beautiful it seems impolite to look.

“I don’t,” she tries to say, but the wave overtakes her, bears her up and away, and her hips jerk down and her mouth opens and she is gone.

“You don’t,” Héloïse prompts, once she has returned.

“I don’t,” Marianne repeats, blankly. Héloïse’s fingers are still inside of her and it is a very pleasant feeling, sitting there in the afterglow. “Oh! You mean- just now. I was going to say, it’s very convenient that you read that one last. Because I don’t know the word for millet.”

Marianne,” Héloïse scolds, the smile spreading.

“What?” Marianne shrugs, impenitent, and bends to kiss her. Héloïse has neither the heart nor the will to resist. “I borrowed the translation. And it’s hard to remember in the heat of the moment.”

“That’s cheating.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Mm.” Marianne stretches up, sitting back on her heels. Like this Héloïse’s palm presses flat against her and she fears they will soon be distracted again. Marianne seems to have no concerns. All she does is roll her hips down, slick and slow, against Héloïse’s hand. It sinks her fingers a little deeper and Marianne’s eyes flutter shut.

“Again?”

“I think so.”

“You think so?“

“Take your shirt off first.”

“Why,” Héloïse asks, already reaching for the hem. Marianne helps her tug it over her head.

“I like looking at you. Obviously. All that rehearsal has to be good for something, right?”

Héloïse looks down at herself- dancer’s body, a little broad but not out of the ordinary- then back up at Marianne. Marianne with her gorgeous jutting collarbones and pretty dark nipples and her shirt sticking to her belly where Héloïse’s hand had been.

“You, too,” she says. “Off.”

Marianne complies.

Héloïse stares for a long moment. Then sits up, so abruptly that she nearly dislodges Marianne from her lap, and kisses her on the sternum.

“What was that for?”

“I wanted to.” Héloïse starts the motion of her fingers, just slow tiny movements for now. “You are- just. There are no words.”

“Shut up.”

“O yellow eye,” a kiss to her collarbone, “I am your sweetmeat,” the swell of her breast, “your priest,” her nipple, “your mouth-”

“Shut up,” but Marianne laughs and grabs at her shoulders, her eyes warm. “You didn’t tell me you’ve read Anne Sexton.”

“I’m a woman of many talents.”

“That you are. Come here and show me some of them.”

And so the rest of the morning is passed.

 

For lunch Marianne tosses some chicken in a pan and orders Héloïse to make a palatable salad. Which she does. Mostly. The leaves all look the same and with some exceptions they taste the same too. So Marianne cannot fault her for putting them all in there.

Tolstoy emerges a little later, sniffing about in a manner that suggests she has smelled the chicken. Upon finding it gone from the pan she leaps up onto Héloïse’s thigh and noses disappointedly at her empty plate.

“Hello,” Héloïse coos. With a few scratches behind the ears Tolstoy is reduced to an ecstatically purring floppy rag draped over Héloïse’s lap. There is a minor worry that she will fall off but she seems unconcerned at the prospect and besides cats are supposed to land on their feet.

“Excuse me,” Marianne says, as affronted as she can be around a mouthful of salad. “I was planning to sit there.”

“You know what they say about missed opportunities,” Héloïse tells her. Tolstoy concurs with a smug little mew.

“I feed you,” Marianne starts, glowering at the small engine sat in Héloïse’s lap, “I house you, and this is the thanks I get? Hm? And you-“ an accusing finger pointed at Héloïse- “trying to start a mutiny in my household? I won’t have it.”

“Do you hear that? We won’t be ruled by a despot. Isn’t that right, Tolstoy?”

Mrow.”

“You conniving little rascals. Expect no more from me, then.” And with that she goes off to the bedroom, taking her plate with her.

Héloïse and Tolstoy share a perturbed stare.

“Well, we’ve got to go after her.”

A mew of agreement.

“Do you think she’s really angry? She’s not really angry, is she?”

Another mew.

“No, I didn’t think so either. Shall I go ask? We, sorry. Yes. We’ll go ask. I’ll do the talking.”

Mrow.”

“It’s part of communicating better. I read a book about it. Did I tell you I’m going to communicate better? With her, not with you. Though I suppose this counts. Yes, let’s go, sorry.”

 

They are forgiven, fed a piece of lettuce, and sent back out to amuse themselves while Marianne grades the rest of her papers. Héloïse tries to read in peace but Tolstoy is fixated on the idea of using her head as a bed and thus will not cease trying to dash up her shoulder. She is tiny so there is no harm done, except for that caused by her sharp little claws. Balakov will be furious.

Marianne cannot seem to decide between pity and laughter.

“This isn’t funny,” Héloïse informs her.

“Oh, not at all. Would you like a plaster?”

In the small cabinet below the bathroom sink there is an enormous collection of children’s plasters, decorated with an assortment of unfamiliar cartoon characters. Marianne unwraps at least ten. Héloïse musters the nerve to protest only when there is a small orange fish about to be applied to her nose.

“No, you’ve got a little- hand down.”

Héloïse obeys.

“Good, thank you. Tolstoy, that was bad. The goal is to keep her around, you hear?”

Tolstoy mewls pathetically. Héloïse is too busy thinking about being kept around to react appropriately.

“I’m sorry about that.”

“No, it’s fine,” Héloïse says, with a lunatic’s smile. “Doesn’t hurt at all.”

“Still.” Marianne strokes gently down the side of her cheek. It feels almost unbearably nice. “And right before the show, too.”

Héloïse’s eyes go wide.

The show.

“What time is it?”

“Three… forty-five, I think? Oh, God. When do you have to be there?”

“Four.”

They share a look.

“Why are you still sitting here!”

“You’re holding my hand!”

“You’re holding my hand!”

“Okay, I’m going. Wait, kiss me. For good luck.”

“Mm. Good luck.”

Héloïse pauses at the door. “Oh! Your ticket.” She digs around in her backpack and comes up with the carefully preserved slip. “Here. You’re invited to Lady of the Camellias, courtesy of your-“ your-? Your what? She has to say something they’re just staring at each other and Héloïse doesn’t know what to-

“Héloïse?”

“Sorry. I’m- here.” Thrusting the ticket out. “I- I’ll see you after. Come to the stage. Bye.” Beating a hasty retreat. She catches the door just before it closes and adds, “I’ll miss you. Til then.”

 

“Dupont! You’re late.” Balakov marches toward her looking ill-tempered as ever. “What are those things?”

“The plasters? They’re not-“

Balakov has already pulled one off. Beneath it is a dark pink scratch, left over from Tolstoy’s vicious attacks. He peers at it for a moment, then looks skyward in quiet disbelief.

“What did I say,” he demands.

“What?”

“No. Marks. What are those?”

“They’re not from- not- no! They’re from a cat. Cat-scratch. Look.”

“Mhm,” he says, clearly unimpressed. “If that’s what you call it. Makeup. Now.”

Héloïse accepts defeat and goes off to the makeup station, where Alexey is getting his nose powdered.

“You look like you got mauled,” he says, without moving his mouth.

“Thanks.”

“Send her my regards.”

“Shut up.”

The foundation is caked onto Héloïse’s face. She winces. This is her least favourite part by far. It feels as if someone has filled in all of her face with clay.

“It was from her cat,” she adds.

“Her cat?”

“Yes. Her name is Tolstoy.”

“Very cute. Do you have a picture?”

“Oh!” Héloïse lights up. “I do!” She digs out her phone and pulls up the picture, taken just last night- Marianne beaming with one arm draped around Tolstoy, who is trying to eat the camera. Héloïse had looked at it for probably half an hour. Alexey is similarly impressed.

“Oh my God, she’s gorgeous.”

Héloïse preens a little. “She is. I know.”

“You don’t have any pictures of me.”

“And? I see you all the time.”

“So rude.” He puts the camera very close to his nose and takes a picture. “There. A beautiful picture to remind you of me.”

“Perfect. I’ll sell it.”

“You wouldn’t!”

“No, you’re right, no one would buy it.”

“No moving,” snaps Alexey’s stylist. Héloïse smiles peaceably at the mirror.

 

More stretching. Last-minute rehearsal. There is a scene where Héloïse is meant to be sitting on Alexey’s shoulders while Vodopetov fans his arms out, and though their technique is excellent Alexey will not stop laughing. So they do it again and again until it is perfect. Olga Smirnova and Alexey practise the pas de deux, which is gorgeous even if Alexey is terribly nervous and keeps changing his turns. Vodopetov puts half a bag of chalk on his hands and they do some half-hearted lifts.

“Let’s race,” Héloïse suggests, and Alexey joins her on a sliding half-run through the Bolshoi- the velvety red rooms, the grand staircase, the pink hallways patrolled by frowning ushers, back through to the clean white studio, into the theatre itself, huge and gilt and red with the gold curtain still down. Then up on stage, ducking around the curtain, sprinting through to the dim black backstage. Héloïse wins. The satisfaction of that is more than worth Balakov’s ire.

Six o’clock and Héloïse is getting nervous. People have started to arrive. She fidgets and watches for Marianne but cannot see her.

Six thirty and time is flying. Alexey keeps adjusting his jacket. Héloïse’s dress has started to pinch even though it has been fine for months.

Twenty minutes left. Olga Smirnova starts doing little fouettés. Héloïse does them too. En pointe she is focused, precise. She can think of nothing else. What is there to be nervous about? Right. Slipping. Falling over. Being dropped on her face. Injury. Et cetera, ad nauseam.

Ten minutes. Balakov says- “Remember, you’re the first dancer they see.” Which is not exactly helpful. But Héloïse has done well under pressure her whole life.

Five minutes. The bell rings.

Two minutes. She squeezes Alexey’s shoulder. “Good luck.”

“You too. I won’t drop you.”

“Thank you.”

One minute. Héloïse goes into the wings and waits, shifts nervously side to side. Beside her Vodopetov whispers a prayer.

The curtain goes up.

A hush.

And the show begins.

 

It is all silent onstage. The music is there but not there, Héloïse feels it instead of hearing it. She doesn’t dare look at the audience. Just her eyes on Olga, maybe Vodopetov. Distant. Perfect technique. She counts the beats and lifts- arabesque penché, now spinning round, the patter of pointe shoes deafeningly loud on the wood- and then draws back, stepping into the wings of the second stage. Alexey approaches Olga. The lights are uncomfortably hot and Héloïse feels like she is being roasted on a spit. Once more, lift, spin, then they take their bows and run offstage, leaving Alexey and Olga behind.

Héloïse likes it.

A great deal, actually. Not so much for the audience but for the quiet. In rehearsals it is never quiet, there is always someone practising in the corner or pacing along the wall. But here there is none of that. Just the silence stretching out from her shoulder to her fingertips. She is self-contained, there is no space beyond her skin, she could with nothing more than the closing of her eyes be reduced to simple raw motion.

This time around Héloïse keeps her eyes open.

The first pas de trois. Alexey doesn’t drop her. Arms curved, legs extended. Lifted up. Tremendous applause. Intermission afterward is brutal. Something is going on with the lights and Balakov bustles about looking disconcerted. Héloïse sits cross-legged in the wings while Alexey eats a raw carrot and goes through all the positions of the feet and tries to get rid of the nerves.

Act Two and Héloïse is in the wings again. She had not counted on spending so much time backstage. It is endured through tossing grapes up in the air and doing more fouettés. And whispering with anyone around, except Olga, who is terrifying.

More dancing. Another intermission. Héloïse puts on a jacket then changes her mind and takes it off again. She is meant to die in this act, which will be fun if Vodopetov doesn’t drop her.

“Why is intermission so long,” says Alexey, who is very sweaty as well.

“No more,” Héloïse agrees fervently.

There is another pas de trois and then the death scene. Then so much clapping at the end that Alexey has to stand there for five minutes looking sad before he can finish the scene.

And then suddenly it is over.

Here is all Héloïse remembers-

Bows are taken. Alexey and Olga are in front of Héloïse and she is overwhelmed by the cacophony of a standing ovation so she focuses instead on the ruffles of Alexey’s shirt. The whole thing is entirely surreal. She imagines, for some reason, that her mother has stayed seated, that she is sitting with one leg folded over the other impassive as always. But when Héloïse dares to look she is there, in the front row, on her feet. Smiling. Out further beyond her in the mass of cheering people there is Marianne, like a rose among nettles. Héloïse knows when their gazes meet even though she is far away and could very well be looking at anyone on stage because Marianne whistles, a high piercing sound flung up toward the vast ceiling, and also because there is no one else that either of them could be looking at.

She bows, again. And again. And one more time when the cheering goes on as strong as before. Alexey steps back and takes her hand; on her other side she finds Vodopetov. They bow together. A group of ladies in red come through with bouquets, so many of which are deposited in Héloïse’s arms that she is unable to carry them all and has to stack them at her feet. At some point the cheering starts to seem redundant. Héloïse fidgets. There is a brief moment where she starts to wonder what will happen if they just never stop. Maybe she will be turned into a bobblehead, or one of those little waving cats on Marianne’s bedroom windowsill. Not a bad life by any means though Tolstoy had knocked one of them off the other day. Héloïse is so busy pondering this warm inanimate future that she misses another round of bowing, and only Alexey’s sudden vice grip on her hand is enough to shock her back in time for the next one.

But eventually the clapping trails off, and it is then that the real horror of the night begins. Almost immediately Héloïse is swept up by a few men in suits, who smile like sharks and make some appreciative remarks. Héloïse can hardly remember words, let alone what to say to them. But her mother’s training takes over and she says something back and they leave her alone which is good. She moves through the crowd as quickly as possible. Looking for Marianne.

In snatches- Alina Somova, as tall as Alexey, clapping his shoulder. Some government bigshot flanked by two bald men in suits. A pomaded man. Two exceptionally old ladies in dresses. Someone who might be Baryshnikov. She is polite to all of them but her attention is clearly elsewhere so they say a few words and let her move on.

Marianne is the one who finds her. A tap on her shoulder. In Russian, “Excuse me. Are you by chance ballet’s rising-” and then Héloïse throws her arms around her.

Marianne’s hand splays over the back of Héloïse’s dress, the silk pulled into a taut spiderweb of wrinkles. A secret kiss is pressed to Héloïse’s shoulder. “Unbelievable,” whispered into her ear.

“Did you like it?”

“Shut up,” Marianne says, pulling back to inspect her. She is wearing a pretty red dress and her hair is down and Héloïse might very well die on the spot. “My God. You couldn’t have told me you were playing Manon? When the curtain opened I thought they would have to scrape me off the floor.”

Héloïse laughs and grabs her hand. “If you want I can sign your playbill. Come on, I’ll introduce you to Alexey. Alexey!”

Alexey turns, catches sight of Marianne, raises his eyebrows at Héloïse, and, upon receiving an affirmative nod, lights up. He excuses himself politely from the wad of people contending for his attention and bounds toward them.

“Alexey Medvedev,” he says, and shakes Marianne’s hand with great enthusiasm. “I’ve heard about you endlessly, I’m serious, it never stops. You’re Héloïse’s-?”

“Yes,” she confirms easily. Héloïse’s. “Marianne. You were incredible, by the way- I don’t know anything about ballet but it was just wonderful to watch.”

“Oh, thank you. Héloïse, go away and do something else.”

“What?”

“Rub some elbows. Get them off our backs. Look, there’s Alina Somova, all the way from the Mariinsky. You know her, don’t you?”

“Yes,” Héloïse says, slowly. She is loath to leave Marianne but she does have to go say thank you to the corps. And Olga. A terrifying prospect.

“Bye,” Marianne says. She catches her hand again, squeezes it. “I’ll find you in a few minutes.”

“Okay. Goodbye. Bye, Alexey.”

“Goodbye,” Alexey simpers, and Héloïse is shooed off.

Unfortunately there is to be no mercy. Olga is only a few steps in front of her, and the cameras are flashing away.

“Congratulations,” she says. They shake hands and Héloïse makes an attempt at looking her in the eye. Her cheekbones are simply relentless.

“Thank you. It would not have been possible without you at the lead.”

“Yes,” Olga agrees. Her smile sharpens. “We are lucky to have you. But if you ever return to France, I’m sure your competition will be glad to see you go.”

A- compliment?

“Thank you?”

“Of course. Best wishes, Héloïse Dupont. I’ll see you at our next show.”

“Best wishes,” Héloïse echoes, bewildered. Olga nods politely, kisses her cheek in a breeze of expensive perfume, and wafts away.

Héloïse escapes the clutches of five different bald men before reaching the relative safety of the wall. There she paces a moment, tries to blend in. Though it is hard in the purple dress, especially with a few stray flower petals still sticking to it. She makes a face and plucks them off one by one.

“Héloïse.”

Maman. Héloïse straightens, turns to face her. She has brought an entourage- three girls from the academy, and a few people that Héloïse recognises vaguely as sponsors.

“Excuse us for a moment,” she tells them.

Then, to Héloïse, “You danced well.”

“Thank you.”

“Everyone in the audience was saying, at intermission, ‘did you see Manon?’ The seat next to mine was the ballet master at La Scala. He came all the way from Milan to see you.”

“I don’t want to go to Milan.”

“Yes, well, the Bolshoi is better anyway. You like it here?”

“Yes.”

“Good.” Her mother is looking somewhere else. Across the stage. Héloïse follows her gaze- Alina Somova. A gaggle of people. In the center of attention, next to-

“He is not a bad match.”

Héloïse’s blood turns to ice.

“He is my friend,” she bites out.

“These things change.”

“This one won’t.”

“How do you know? Sometimes life surprises you.”

“Because-“

“There you are,” Marianne interrupts. In Russian, thankfully. “Alexey’s leaving in twenty minutes, he said to ask you if you’d like to escort him.”

She pauses. Looks inquisitively to Maman, who is standing still, her hands folded, her eyebrows raised.

Héloïse musters all her courage. “Marianne. This is my mother. Maman, this is Marianne.”

Marianne doesn’t so much as blink. In French, she says, “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Likewise.” Her mother takes the outstretched hand. Shakes twice. “How are you acquainted with my daughter?”

“We met at the university.”

“Ah. You’re a student?”

“A lecturer, actually. Though we’re all students.”

“I see.”

Marianne looks to Héloïse, who has nothing really to offer but needs to say something.

“She reads more books than anyone in the world,” she says.

“Oh, that is very nice. Do you like any in particular?”

Her mother is making an effort. Her mother. An effort.

“I quite like French literature. Candide, Molière. All of that.”

“Good. That is- good.” A stiff bow of the head. “Did you like the ballet?”

“I loved it. Héloïse, you were unbelievable. Like there was air beneath your feet.”

Héloïse goes pink. “Thank you.”

“I had wanted to see a tutu, though.”

“Sorry to disappoint. Maybe next time.”

“I’m going to speak with Mikhail,” Héloïse’s mother interrupts, smiling very strangely. She nods to Marianne. “It was nice to meet you again. Héloïse-“ a brief pause- “Well done. I’m having dinner tonight with the directors, and Olga. I won’t disturb you at such a late hour, of course. Though I’m sure you’ll be up by nine. Goodbye.”

She disappears off into the crowd. Héloïse looks after her, bewildered. And Marianne- starts to laugh?

“What? What’s so funny?”

“I think she just gave you permission to sleep over.”

“Did she?”

“That’s exactly how my Papa told me when I was a teenager.” In a deep cheerful voice, “I’ll be making breakfast at seven sharp, and if no one’s there to eat it then there’ll be trouble.” Back to normal- “Every time. I don’t know how he always could tell when I was planning to sneak out.”

“You think she knows, then?”

“Yes. Does that bother you?”

Héloïse thinks for a moment. “No,” she decides.

Marianne grants her a slow dimpling smile. “I’m glad.”

“Come on, let’s go. I have to say goodbye to Balakov and then I’m free.”

 

Balakov cries, the sappy old bastard.

“Proud of you,” he says gruffly. His eyebrows are un-furrowed and his voice is wavering a bit which is about the closest Balakov gets to blubbering. “You’re going to do some incredible things, Dupont. Hear me?”

“Balakov, I have a question.”

“You’re not even going to acknowledge what I said?”

“Yes, thank you, you are the best ballet master. I have a question.”

He sighs, clearly giving up on sappiness. “Fine. What is it.”

“Who’s playing Romeo?”

“In the matinee it’ll be Sergei, I think. And then Alexey Medvedev for the- what do you call it? The Stars of the Stars.”

“Stupid name.”

“I know.”

“And when are auditions for Juliet?”

Balakov’s eyes go wide. Or- slightly wider. “Next week. You’re going to do it?”

“I think so.”

“And the prima contract?”

Héloïse shakes her head. “I don’t want it.”

“Then where are you going? Paris? The American?”

“Yes, that is a good question.” Héloïse mulls it over for a moment. But she has time. And Marianne is waiting for her. “I’ll think about it later.”

His eyebrows shoot up. “Later, hm? Why are you in such a hurry?”

“Well, I-“ Héloïse motions toward the exit. “I have to go. I’m in very high demand, Balakov.”

“Really.”

“Yes, I must be going. Thank you. You’ve been lovely to work with.”

He stills her with a hand on her arm. And tips his head toward Marianne, who is discussing something animatedly with Elizaveta Arkadyevna. “That’s your friend?” he asks.

Héloïse frowns back at him. Surely he knows. What on earth is he talking about?

“Your friend,” he repeats. Insistently.

“Balakov-“

He draws her in for an unexpected hug. In her ear he whispers, “Remember Serebrennikov.”

Serebrennikov. Serebrennikov. The Bolshoi director. Nureyev. House arrest, the trial.

Oh.

“Careful, Dupont. Not the best thing to be in Moscow.” He releases her. “Take tomorrow off. I’ll see you at the next show.”

“See you,” Héloïse echoes, and goes back to Marianne.

“What’s wrong?”

Héloïse shakes her head. Not here.

 

She changes back into street clothes- Marianne’s green Sorbonne shirt, sweatpants, boots- while Marianne retrieves her coat from the cloakroom. On the steps of the Bolshoi Héloïse is briefly accosted by one of the theatergoers, and can do little else beside smile awkwardly and nod as he rambles on about her technical form. Eventually he wishes them goodnight and staggers off. Only when he is out of earshot does she dare look at Marianne, who is- as predicted- trying unsuccessfully to hide her laughter.

“Stop it,” Héloïse groans. “No, it’s not funny.”

“The way you smiled-“

“What was I supposed to do!”

“Look at me.” Marianne grabs Héloïse’s face with one hand. “Now smile.”

“You haven’t said anything funny,” Héloïse points out. But at the sight of Marianne she can hardly help it and in a matter of seconds she is beaming.

“There. Like that.”

“You’d like me to smile at him like I smile at you?”

Marianne chews on that one for a moment. “No,” she decides, then tugs at Héloïse’s wrist. “Come on, let’s go down to the fountain.”

The grand fountain in the Teatral’naya Ploshchad is rarely on. But tonight they have cleared out the snow which often stays packed inside till spring, and set the pipes to running. Of course it is freezing out but the cold is the type where the air reaches right into her lungs, and Marianne holds Héloïse’s hands between her mittens. Her nose has gone a delightful shade of red and very sneakily Héloïse manages to kiss it. Marianne goes still and when Héloïse pulls back her eyes are closed and she is smiling.

Héloïse clears her throat. “Your nose is cold.”

“Yes, that happens.” Marianne’s eyes open. “Is yours?”

“Is my nose cold? I don’t know.”

“Let me feel it.” Marianne puts a mitten over her nose and adopts a very serious expression.

“What’s the verdict?”

“Hm. Cold.”

Héloïse plays along gamely. “Thank you, doctor. What do you suggest?”

“A cup of tea. And a kiss.”

“Only one?”

“Maybe two,” Marianne allows. “Three depending on how long you spend in the cold.”

“How long am I spending in the cold?”

“However long it takes Alexey to get here.”

“Oh, we’re waiting for Alexey?”

Marianne nods. “I like him.”

“Yes, he’s very funny. How was the show?”

“Beautiful. How was the show?”

Héloïse groans. “So much time backstage. But the dancing was good. Were you watching me?”

“Was I watching you,” Marianne repeats, deadpan.

Point taken. “Did you have a favourite part?”

“I did, actually. The part when you put your arms up like this-“ she demonstrates, adorable with her coat buttoned up to her chin and arms straining above her head- “and jumped. I don’t know how you can jump so high.”

Héloïse melts a little. “Oh my God. Do that again.”

“I can’t do the jump.”

“I’ll lift you.”

“Oh, I don’t know if that’s- Héloïse-“

“There, that’s high enough. Now hands up.”

Marianne grasps blindly at Héloïse’s shoulders. “If I fall-“

“You won’t,” Héloïse says, with certainty. “Can you feel my hands?”

“Yes. I think.” She stills. “You won’t drop me?”

“I won’t. Go on.” Héloïse presses an encouraging kiss to one of her coat buttons. “Lift your arms.”

Marianne breathes deep. Very slowly, she pulls one of her hands back from Héloïse’s shoulder. Then the other. And she reaches up.

Héloïse spins in a slow careful circle. From this angle it looks as if Marianne is touching the moon with the tips of her mittens. A sweet delicate touch, her face turned skyward. The splash of the fountain beside them, the Bolshoi’s floodlights in the distance, no one else around.

Then Marianne’s chin tips down and she beams at Héloïse, hair spilling all over her face. Her coat has been rucked up a little by Héloïse’s hands and there is a hint of the very pretty red dress and Héloïse is, without a doubt, the luckiest person in the entire world.

 

A few minutes later, after Marianne has been set back on her feet and Héloïse has complained some more about the choreography of the death scene, Alexey comes tumbling down the steps.

“Hello!” he trills, and does a pirouette. “I’m here to be walked to the bus stop.”

He and Marianne spend the walk poking fun at Héloïse, who can do nothing but scowl and push her bicycle along. Embarrassing stories are recounted in painful detail. Inside jokes are conceived. Alexey speaks a little Ukrainian and they have great fun discussing Old East Slavic in the Kievan Rus. Héloïse sulks but is (not-so) secretly glad.

Once he has been deposited safely on the bus and waved off, Marianne sits down on the bench with a groan.

“Sore?”

“Yes. How can anyone walk in heels?” She makes a face at her shoes. “Idiot designers.”

“I’ll carry you,” Héloïse offers.

“No, it’s alright. You must be exhausted. And I’m heavy.”

Héloïse puts the bicycle up against the bench and crouches with her back to Marianne. “Come on, hurry up.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

Reluctantly Marianne slides her arms around Héloïse’s shoulders and lets herself be hauled up. She is very warm and her legs bounce a little as Héloïse walks.

“Héloïse?”

“Mm?”

“What did Balakov say to you?”

“He asked about you.”

Marianne stiffens, arms tightening around Héloïse’s shoulders. “He did?”

Héloïse hastens to reassure her. “Not in that way. Just- it’s not easy to be like that, in the Bolshoi. Because so much funding comes from the state. That’s all he said.”

“I see.” Marianne is quiet for a minute, her breath soft and warm on the side of Héloïse’s neck.

Then- “Will it be hard, do you think? To walk the line?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Fortunately you are unbelievably good.”

Héloïse preens. “I’m not bad, am I?”

“Darling, you were so exquisite that I might even forgive you for that nonsense with the arabesque penché.”

“I had to practice!”

“Please. You were seducing me.”

“And it worked.”

“It did,” Marianne agrees. “Though I was already prepared for that.”

“You were?”

“I’d made it perfectly clear.” She turns her head, chin bumping into Héloïse’s cheek. “Didn’t I? From Candide.”

“Did you?” Héloïse is stupefied.

“I expected you to- after that first time. Why are you surprised? I went to the bedroom.”

“I thought you were tired!”

Tired-“ Marianne splutters for a moment- “You can’t possibly be serious. I expected you to come in after me, I was so nervous, and then I heard the door. I couldn’t believe it. I was-“

She cuts herself off. But it needs to be said. “You were-?” Héloïse prompts.

Marianne blows out a breath. “I don’t know. I thought you didn’t- I mean, I felt like- I just. I called in sick the next day and sort of laid in bed for a while. And then I thought I wasn’t ever going to see you again so I opened Anna Karenina and found the passage and then you’d put your address right next to it and it was like- I think I cried. Which is ridiculous, I know. But I couldn’t help it. Suddenly you were there and you loved- liked- me back, and I went from feeling shit to just-“ her hands miming an explosion- “in a second. Like all the lights had suddenly turned green. And then- after. When your mother came. It was the same thing all over again, I thought I’d gone too fast or- or asked too much, or-” a tiny alarming sniffle- “sorry, I don’t know why I’m, I mean you’re right here. Sorry.“

“I’m going to set you down,” Héloïse says, very softly.

Marianne’s eyes are a little red and she doesn’t quite meet Héloïse’s gaze. Just scuffs her shoe against the side of the pavement and looks steadfastly at Héloïse’s shoulder.

“I didn’t realise.”

“It’s okay. I mean, we’re here. Sorry, I’m being all-“

“No, don’t apologise.” Héloïse catches one of her flailing hands, just for a moment. “I’m sorry. You’ve been so patient with me.”

“Well, yes. Because I liked you. Like you.”

“Oh, you still do?” Héloïse jokes. But perhaps it is bad timing because Marianne starts to tear up again.

“Oh my God-” she laughs, a little watery- “Why am I crying? Yes, I do. So much.”

“I like you too.”

“You do.” Not a question, not a statement. Somewhere in between.

“Infinitely.”

“See, I wish I could have known that a little earlier. It would have saved Tolstoy a lot of time.”

Héloïse frowns. “Really?”

“Yes. She charges by the hour, you know. Very expensive.”

When Héloïse laughs Marianne grins too, and the worry starts to dissipate.

“Well,” she says, looking off down the lamplit street. “It’s good to know, in any case. For a while I didn’t think you wanted me.”

She spins on her heel and starts walking again but it can hardly be left at that. Héloïse gapes after her for a moment before jogging to catch up, pushing the bicycle alongside.

“Ever since the first class," she tells her. "Anna Karenina, everything was made bright by her. Then.”

Marianne smiles down at the footpath. "Since you asked me when the next class was."

"Oh. Really?"

"Yes. You were so- brilliant. So confident and so shy all at once. And of course there was the Anna Karenina."

"I didn't know."

Her eyes crinkle. "I didn't know either. Funny how these things turn out."

Héloïse kisses her, quick and glancing, under the flickering lamplight. When she pulls back Marianne gives her a slow sweet smile. Wanting. But mostly an overwhelming simple fondness.

“Take me home,” Héloïse asks.

 

The night is caught in pieces, refracted back through the cold clear air. The click of the key in the door, the tiny meow from the black chasm of the living room. Héloïse laughing, half-afraid of the dark. Marianne’s hand in hers. Into the bathroom, side-by-side. The light is blinding so Héloïse flicks it off and they brush their teeth in the dark, co-conspirators. “Let’s fly to Venus,” says Marianne, wildly. A spaceship is constructed and Tolstoy is stuffed inside. Héloïse makes a vroom sound and puts her hand over Marianne’s on the imaginary steering wheel.

“What are we doing?”

“Everything,” and it is pitch black, so dark that the sink can only be found by team effort, but still Héloïse thinks that she catches the flash of Marianne’s smile. “Absolutely everything.”

 

The moon spills through the bedroom window and catches at Marianne’s hair with greedy hands. She mimes a plié and spins, lazily, on bare feet.

“Teach me something,” she asks. It seems impossible that Héloïse could teach her anything. Not like this. With every secret in the universe held under her skin.

“In that dress?”

Marianne considers this for a moment, then spins neatly so her back is to Héloïse. “Zipper, please.”

Héloïse tugs the zipper down. Down the bare expanse of her back, with its perfect geometry of bone and muscle. She kisses, once, at the shoulder-blade, and feels Marianne’s breath catch.

Once over the hips the dress drops, and lands in a pool of red silk at Marianne’s feet. When she turns she is entirely naked but for a matching slip of red lace, which she is already tugging off. She looks up at Héloïse from where she is bending to pull the lace over her feet, and gives her a cat’s-smile. “You too.”

Héloïse swallows. And reaches for the hem of her shirt.

The nakedness feels unexpectedly clean. Héloïse shifts, self-conscious, as Marianne’s gaze wanders all the way down and back again.

“Now?”

“Now what?”

Marianne gestures, loosely, at their bodies. “Teach me something now.”

Héloïse finds her wrist. With one finger she brushes over the delicate skin there. Where Marianne’s heartbeat is. “Bourrée,” she murmurs. Slides one hand over the soft skin of Marianne’s hip and guides her, slowly, through the motions. “Ronde de jambe en dehors. Good. Now plié-“ and as Marianne’s legs bend open Héloïse trails a hand up the velvet inside of her thigh, diverts the trail at the last moment up her belly. “Frappé, once, twice, then extend.” She wraps one arm around Marianne’s waist, supporting the slow slide down. When Marianne can go no further Héloïse whispers, “And lean back.”

She does. Héloïse takes her weight with one hand braced and lifts her hips so that Marianne’s back arches. Holds for a moment. “Now slide down. Yes, sitting.” Without question Marianne complies. Oh, this is- this is something new entirely. Héloïse breathes deep, then shifts back, legs spinning out under her. In one languid motion she is back on her feet. Glissade in fifth position, three fouettés, and once in front of Marianne she reaches out a hand. Marianne’s fingers close around her wrist and Héloïse pulls her easily to standing.

“Now what?” Marianne asks, softly. So as not to disturb the magic.

“The solo variation.”

“Go ahead, then.”

Héloïse dances. Light. With her eyes closed, slipping into the rawness. Marianne’s eyes like a touch on her bare skin. Anything, anything at all is possible. Outside the constraints of choreography. Just thoughtless motion. Piqué turn en dehors. Tombé through second, glissade, chassé to a double tour en l’air. Landing in a neat fifth that turns to a deep plié that shifts out, ronde de jambe, into a grand écart.

There Héloïse stops, though she could have gone on forever. Marianne is staring, open-mouthed.

“What is that from,” she asks.

“The-? Oh. It’s not from anything.“

“You mean you made that up?”

Héloïse flushes a little. “Yes.”

“Unbelievable.” Marianne shifts forward, onto her hands. “I thought it might have been Romeo and Juliet.”

“No. That was just because- you.” Shyly she looks down. But Marianne understands.

“A ballet for us, hm?”

“Maybe.”

A moment’s silence. Then Marianne says, thoughtfully, “I think you could be an excellent choreographer.”

Héloïse blinks. Somehow, she hadn’t- she had never- thought of that. Even though she knows ballet as well as anyone, knows the particular pieces and the precision of it. Has breathed it from since she was born. Slowly it comes to her- a studio. In Paris, perhaps, or somewhere in London. The swell of a violin crackling over the old speakers. Barefoot on the wood floor. Like this. The taste of possibility.

And, unbidden, she imagines something else.

An apartment. Two sets of keys on the hook. Plants everywhere, an enormous watering can on the windowsill. A silver cat prowling the kitchen. Endless bookshelves. Pointe shoes lined up next to loafers at the door. Not a sure thing. But– maybe.

“A choreographer,” she repeats, trying to fit her mouth around it.

“Or you could keep dancing. Or leave ballet entirely. If you want.”

“No, I-“ Héloïse shakes her head. “I think Juliet will be my last show.”

“Really?”

“And then. Choreography. I’ll ask Balakov, or Ratmansky. There are people in Paris. I could- I could.”

“You could,” Marianne agrees, with a soft smile. “Will you teach me how to do that turning thing?”

“The piqué turn? Okay.” Héloïse slides out of the grand écart and rises back to her feet. “Stand like- yes, both legs straight. One in front. Arch your foot- good. Now turn this leg out, and- onto the ball of your foot, it’s bad form but you don’t have to go en pointe- that’s the turning leg. And as you turn you’ll lift your other leg, bend the knee, arch the foot, as high as it goes. Then bring it down and shift your weight there, and your turning leg swings out, sort of a rond de jambe. Yes. Perfect.”

Marianne’s face screws up in determination. “Do it again,” she asks.

Héloïse does three in a row, slow enough to easily follow. Marianne copies her. Once, twice, then she laughs, arms falling back to her sides, and kisses Héloïse right on the mouth.

“Will you do that in Juliet?”

“A piqué turn? I don’t know. You’ll have to come see it.”

“Can I?”

“Of course. I’ll get you a ticket.”

The wood floor creaks when Marianne steps closer. She slides a hand over Héloïse’s bare shoulder- oh, she had forgotten she was naked- and then down her shoulder-blades. Over her waist, her hips. Pressing into the sore muscle. Héloïse sighs and melts into her hands, her lovely hands.

“Juliet,” Marianne hums, to herself. Up Héloïse’s stomach, under her breasts, along the piano-keys of her ribcage, the moonlight pooling in her collarbones. Everything slows, narrows, tightens into a tiny bubble. Up the muscle of her neck, down her spine, fingers tripping over the vertebrae. Héloïse lifts her arms, feels her body change beneath Marianne’s hands. Instinctively it is a ballet position. One arm extended, the other curling loosely around Marianne’s shoulders. She sees their bodies as if from a step away, one asymmetrical shape between the bookshelves and the bed, shadows of leaves over the back of Marianne’s bare thighs. Heads bent together. The lightning-strike pale stretch marks over her hip bones. The broken and re-formed arches of Héloïse’s bare feet. Marianne’s warm hands settling on her cheeks, fingers brushing just under her eyes. Pas de deux. Grand coda.

“It is my lady,” Marianne whispers, her eyes luminous and full. “O, it is my love.”

 

When Héloïse wakes there is light filtering through the curtains, and an arm draped over her. It smells like lilies and Marianne’s shampoo. The clock on the bedside table, balanced on a precarious stack of books, tells her it is just before nine.

The lump under the duvet makes a sleepy sound of complaint when Héloïse sits up. So does the smaller, fluffier lump in her lap.

“Good morning,” says Héloïse.

“Nnnngh,” says the large lump.

“Where are you under there?”

After a moment the duvet shifts aside and Marianne’s head emerges, her eyes still closed. “Kiss,” she orders indistinctly.

“You want a kiss?”

A tiny nod.

Héloïse tugs the duvet away a little and bends to kiss her, sweet and closed-mouthed.

“Mm.” Marianne blinks lazily up at her. “God, you’re beautiful.”

Héloïse smiles, flustered and warm. “You’re beautiful.”

Mrow.

“You too, Tolstoy.”

Marianne extricates herself from the duvet and stretches up, a luxurious slow movement. “D’you have to go?”

“In a minute.”

“Come here, then.”

Tolstoy is deposited on top of the duvet with minimal fuss. Héloïse wriggles over so she is on top, her arms wrapped around Marianne’s back and their legs tangled together. She buries her face in Marianne’s neck and lets their breaths match up.

Five minutes later Marianne has dozed off again and Tolstoy is making a sneaky effort at going to sleep on Héloïse’s back. Carefully Héloïse tucks her in next to Marianne’s head. She scribbles a note on a spare piece of paper– ‘Off to see mother. Love, H.’– then adds a quick doodle of Tolstoy curled up on the pillow, and sets it on the bedside table.

She pauses at the bedroom door and looks back. Marianne, splayed out over the bed, her shirt tugged up past her belly button. Hair like a halo around her head. Tolstoy sleeping peacefully next to her, fluffy silver tail flicking lazily back and forth.

Héloïse puts a hand on her stomach. And feels it.

 

Her mother emerges from her room seconds after the front door closes. Héloïse freezes from where she is hanging up her coat. But there is no remark made and her mother only nods in dismissive greeting before going to the kitchen.

“Good morning,” she says, with an unfamiliar smile. It takes Héloïse a moment to place it. And then re-place it, thinking she has certainly gone mad. It cannot possibly be- teasing?

Héloïse slips her shoes off, keeping a wary eye on the stranger at the kitchen counter. “Good morning.”

“Did you sleep well?”

“I did. Did you?”

“No, not really. That bed is creaky. Have you eaten yet?”

“Not yet.”

“Come have something, then.”

With great suspicion Héloïse approaches the refrigerator and pulls out a bag of grapes. Her mother says nothing, just stirs her oats and milk and looks vaguely self-satisfied. Only when Héloïse is sitting at the table, idly plucking grapes from the bunch, does she finally broach the subject.

First a clearing of the throat. Then the clink of her espresso cup on the table as she takes a seat across from Héloïse. Then, deceptively casual, “How is she?”

Héloïse’s stomach drops but her expression stays neutral. In the same casual tone she asks, “Who?”

“That university girl.”

“She’s fine.”

“Have you seen her lately?”

“Yes, at the show.” With the edge of her thumbnail Héloïse peels back the skin of a grape. “Why do you ask?”

“Just wondering.” The rustle of the newspaper opening, being folded back. “And how is Monsieur Mikhalyov?”

Héloïse blinks. “Who?”

“Alexey Medvedev.”

Not Alexey again. “He’s fine,” she says tersely.

“Oh, don’t be like that. I’m afraid that you’ve missed the point of what I said.”

“You said he was a good match.”

“Of course he is a good match. He is a principal at the Bolshoi.” A loud sipping sound, grating enough to make Héloïse’s jaw clench. “And that's the only thing that matters with these things.”

Héloïse looks up, suspicious. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Watch your language, dear. I’m trying to help you plan for your future.”

"Are you- no. No. Absolutely not."

“Don't be so quick to dismiss it. Ballet is run by backward-thinking people.” A small shrug, the turning of a newspaper page. “There is little tolerance for certain things. But if you are careful, if you preserve the dynasty. Then they are willing to overlook whatever business you have on the side.”

Héloïse can hardly believe what she is hearing. “The dynasty,” she repeats.

“You mock it now. But they take these things very seriously in Russia. Your father came from a long line of dancers. So do the Mikhalyovs. It will secure an excellent future for your children.”

She says it so casually. As if it is not Héloïse’s life on the line. As if this is the kind of future anyone would want. “I won’t marry Alexey.”

“Fine, then. There are others. The Ganio boy, Khalfouni’s son. Both étoiles.”

“I will never marry a man,” Héloïse interrupts, her voice sharp. “Never. Not for children, not for ballet, not for all of Russia.”

Her mother smiles as if indulging a small child. “Then what? You do anything else and you will never see a solo again.”

“I wouldn't mind.”

“Twenty years of training and you give up now? For this?”

This is the rest of my life!”

“Don’t be silly.”

“Don’t condescend to me!”

“Fine. You want the truth? You will be the best in the world. You know it. Everyone knows it. Olga, Nikolai, the whole of the Bolshoi. Already they are writing you into the books. But-”

“They offered me Juliet.”

Her mother stops, her eyes widening. “They did?”

Héloïse nods. “I’m taking it.” Then, before she can say anything, “and then I’m done.”

“You’re done?”

“I’m done dancing.”

“You can’t quit.”

“Yes, I can.”

“What are you going to do?”

This time Héloïse has an answer ready. “Choreography.”

A dismissive shake of the head. “You’re too young.”

“You said I’d be the best.”

“As a dancer, not a choreographer. Let’s say you stop just as you become a prima. Then what happens? You’ll be a half-rate choreographer. A waste of potential. And-“ raising her voice when Héloïse tries to interrupt- “you still won’t get what you want.”

“What do you think I want?” Now it is Maman that will not meet her gaze. “Tell me.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Say it.”

“Your university girl,” her mother bites out, her mouth pursed like she has eaten something sour.

“Her name is Marianne.”

“I know her name. And it doesn’t matter if you’re God’s gift to ballet. They-“ one sharp finger pointing at the living-room-turned-studio- “will make your life hell if they find out. I am trying to help you, Héloïse, there is still- even a marriage of pure convenience will do. Just enough to keep eyes off your personal life.”

“I will not marry a man,” Héloïse repeats, a rock against the tide. “And I will still have ballet.”

Her mother sits still for a moment. Then suddenly she snaps, quick as a snake’s bite, “You cannot have both.”

“You wouldn’t know.”

But her mother is smiling. A grim harsh smile. The sort of smile that says she- she does know.

“It is not unusual.” She picks her words carefully now, each one enunciated and separate from the next. She is not angry anymore but something far more bewildering. “This thing.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You do.” One hand, spindly and smaller than Héloïse had remembered it, shifts across the table, barely bridging the gap. “It was common, back then, for two étoiles to share a dressing room.”

Héloïse has nothing to say. Whatever revelation is about to come, she is not prepared for it.

“You remember Alice?”

Yes. Alice Louvet. She had taught Héloïse the fouetté, years and years ago, on one of the few days her mother had come home before dinnertime. I work with your mother, she had said, bending until she was no longer ethereal and Héloïse could see the traces of makeup still left on her face. You look just like her, you know.

“She was a prima at the Opéra national.” Her mother shakes off some invisible cobweb and looks to Héloïse, suddenly beseeching. “I would not- I could not be angry with you. Not for this. It would not look well upon me.”

That is all she will say, Héloïse understands. That is all she can say.

“Héloïse?”

Her voice splinters, an awful hopeful thing. She is human, too, then.

“I understand,” Héloïse chokes out. Even though she does not. There are a thousand things she could ask- does my father know? How long have you been unhappy? And why, then, do you want me to do the same?

“Good.” Back to business. “That’s that, then. I’m going to have a walk.”

The door closes behind her with a click.

Héloïse sits for a moment.


“Héloïse?”

Privyet.

“Hi. What’s wrong?”

Héloïse blinks. “How did you know?”

“Lucky guess. You sound off.” The rustle of papers. She is at the kitchen table, or maybe still in bed. “Tolstoy liked your drawing, by the way.”

“Did she really?”

“Well, she tried to eat it. High praise.”

Marianne keeps talking, her voice soft and sweet. Telling her about what Tolstoy has been up to this morning, how the old lady at the laundromat had asked if she was a prostitute, that the hot water has been turned off and the neighbours are furious. It is the sort of rambling long story that asks nothing more of Héloïse than to listen. Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best / Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice. Héloïse stares at the half-empty bag of grapes and waits until the tightness eases.

When the anecdote comes to an end she says, “I talked to my mother.”

“About?”

“Ballet. You.”

“And what happened?”

Héloïse explains, halting and slow. Whenever the words stick in her throat Marianne is there to offer a reassuring hum and a gentle question.

“It’ll be alright,” Marianne says, once it is all out. It is an easy enough thing to say but she sounds so certain that Héloïse finds herself believing it. “Do you think she means well?”

“I know she does. But she doesn’t- she couldn’t understand. The idea of risking ballet, for anything. It just doesn’t fit in her brain.”

“Are you- risking ballet?”

“No. God, no. Just maybe the Bolshoi, and a few other companies. But the Bolshoi might as well mean ballet to her.”

“Why?”

Héloïse shrugs and picks at a half-peeled grape. “It is the best in the world, technically.”

“If you want to stay,” Marianne begins, hesitant.

“No. I don’t. Not for that.”

“Alright.” Then, lighter, “On to more important matters. Do you think I’ll have to fight Alexey for your hand? Because I would probably lose.”

Héloïse laughs. “Alexey wouldn’t fight a pumpkin for my hand. But if it ever came down to that I’d help you.”

“Oh, good. What are you going to do, then?”

Romeo & Juliet.”

“But soft, what light through yonder window breaks. And after that?”

“University. And- if I’m leaving the Bolshoi-”

“You’re leaving Moscow.”

“Maybe. In a few months.”

“After graduation?”

Graduation. She means university graduation. Is she-?

“Yes,” says Héloïse.

“Oh, good.”

“Are you-“

She cuts herself off fast but Marianne is faster.

“Am I what?”

“Well,” Héloïse hedges.

“Come on. Ask me.”

“Ask you what?”

“What I’m going to do after graduation.” Marianne is smiling, it is scrunching up the consonants and stretching all her vowels.

“What are you doing after graduation?”

“Leaving Moscow.”

She is!

“And going where,” Héloïse dares to ask.

“Hm, I don’t know yet.” The light-hearted sound of a Parisien shrug. “Anywhere with a university, I suppose.”

With a university. Héloïse is going to a university. Though she mustn’t read into it- of course Marianne will want to go to a university, especially if she means to teach. So really she could mean anything at all. But she is talking to Héloïse. Who is going to university. And Marianne is very careful with her words and these things, being a linguist. So she may very well mean that she- though of course it is very new, it’s all very new, and things must not be rushed into. But-

“Héloïse? Have you listened to a word I’ve said?”

“Sorry. Say it again?”

“I said, I’m looking into a few places. Paris, of course. Havana. Boston. Should I look anywhere else, do you think?”

“New York?”

“Oh, good idea. I’ll be able to see the ballet at Lincoln Center.”

Héloïse’s heart leaps right up into her throat. “Are you going to come with me?”

“Well,” Marianne says, sounding a touch miffed, “I won’t be coming with you. I will be going to a university of my choice, and finishing my doctorate. And if we end up in the same place then that will be the luck of the draw.”

“I see.”

“So. With that said. What are you doing today?”

Héloïse smiles. “Taking you to the museum.”

“Good answer. When shall I expect you?”

“Ten minutes.”

“Perfect.”

 

Her mother leaves two days later, after Héloïse’s second show. Without any fanfare. Just one day she is there and the next she is not.

For the next three weeks there is silence from Paris. Camellias is finished and a bouquet is bought for Alexey. Héloïse does well at the audition. At the same meeting where she is offered Juliet she formally turns down the prima contract. There is a great deal of hubbub and the higher-ups are furious but eventually it is agreed that they will advertise it as her last show. Rehearsals begin practically the next day.

Héloïse spends most of the time not at the Bolshoi with Marianne. On one day she comes sweeping in at the rehearsal break and takes Héloïse to Hleb Nasushchny, which is a warm place full of the smell of fresh bread. Héloïse returns bearing a small macaroon for Balakov, who hmphs but accepts it. On another day they go to look at Saint Basil’s Cathedral, which they agree is very nice though can get a little dispiriting after five minutes of staring. They decline offers of a tour and instead go to a nearby café to discuss Seni Saowaphong’s Pisat (Ghosts) over cups of too-strong tea.

Romeo & Juliet is full of solos and dramatic death scenes. Alexey is picked for Romeo which means that Héloïse gets to do her last show with him. Only very occasionally does she remind him of this because he tends to get weepy and then has to do little entrechats to calm himself down.

“You won’t forget about me at the next company?”

“Alexey, I don’t even know where I’m going yet.”

“And you’ll call me when you need a male dancer?”

“Yes, even if you’re in Moscow.”

“I’ll fly out. They loved me in New York, did I tell you about the one girl who asked me to sign her-“

“Yes, Alexey, ten times already.”

Usually around this time Ratmansky claps loudly to remind them that rehearsal is still going. He is a nice man and with nothing more than a few words from Balakov he is willing to teach her how to choreograph a whole show. Héloïse takes notes throughout rehearsal and during her solos Alexey writes them for her (and makes a painstaking effort to keep his handwriting legible).

Her mother calls somewhere in the middle of all this. She offers a stilted apology, a very rare thing indeed. They talk about the academy. The weather. When asked Héloïse explains her plan- work with a small company, develop a few one-act shows first, and then maybe come back to the Bolshoi. Or the Opéra national.

“And Marianne?”

Héloïse cannot help the note of pride that sneaks into her voice. “She has offers from a lot of universities. To research there. Some to teach, too.”

“That’s good.”

“Yes,” Héloïse agrees curtly.

There is a sigh. They sit in silence for a moment. Héloïse is on the verge of hanging up before-

“All I ever wanted was for you to be happy.” Her mother’s voice cool and quiet against her cheek. “I am glad that you are.”

Héloïse looks instinctively to Marianne, who has taken a break from grading the final papers (a translation and analysis of any page from Anna Karenina) to scratch behind Tolstoy’s ear with the blunt end of her pen. She glances up a moment later as if feeling Héloïse’s gaze, and winks, eyes crinkling at the corners.

“I am too,” Héloïse says, softly.

It is a long-overdue beginning. But a beginning nonetheless.

 

Afterward they go out for a stroll. Spring has overtaken Moscow and Marianne is wearing tiny shorts which is truly a sight to behold. They discuss the eight Rasas and make plans to go swimming and argue with the peculiar satisfaction of people who know they will be happy for quite a long time indeed. Any person fortunate enough to be walking ahead would likely have thought them the strangest people in Moscow.

And, Héloïse thinks, beaming, they would be right.

 

--