One of them is drunk, and it isn't Nina.
She's just - she's just lightheaded, but it's been a while since she has eaten, so this probably explains that. She's not an anorexic or anything -- her mother's mouth, set in a straight line, "Don't be silly, honey!" --, she's just not hungry. It happens, okay? She has work, anyway. Eating just isn't a priority. She's dealing with it just fine, thank you (like she's dealing with Lily's laugh, and the curve of her throat that smells like caramel, and her arms, and her hair, and her - God).
"Come on," Lily says, a wicked smile tucked at the corner of her mouth, "relax."
She grips Nina's shoulders, her knuckles pressing against Nina's skin, and it takes all she has for Nina not to bolt, not to wrench herself from these prying hands.
"No," Nina says, her teeth clenched. She's a castle, she thinks like a mantra, running on a loop in her head. She's impregnable.
"Come," Lily repeats. She smells like alcohol. Nina wonders if she would taste like it, too.
"I'm leaving," Nina says, putting her coat on. Her tongue presses against the back of her teeth a little frantically, pushing as though it were trying to dislodge them.
"Don't," Lily says, a hand closing at the nape of Nina's neck in one swift, practiced gesture. Sometimes Nina forgets she's a dancer too.
"Good night, Lily," Nina says. She feels ridiculous as soon as the words are out of her mouth, but she doesn't look back, keeps her back straight and walks out.
She feels more that she hears Lily's answering laugh. She shakes her shoulders a little to get rid of it when it crawls up her shoulders, trying to be inconspicuous. She fails at both.
This isn't a fall.
Nina doesn't fall, never has, never will. This is not a fall. This is not a fall.
Maybe if she says it enough, it'll be true.
"Come on, get up," Lily says, and holds her hand out to help Nina stand up. Nina feels fuzzy-headed; she wonders how you can hate someone who hasn't done anything to you so fucking much.
"I don't need your help," she snaps. She doesn't. She's a dancer. She can manage to stand on a twisted ankle, even if the feeling of her bones sliding against each other sends a wave of nausea skyrocketing in her diaphragm every time she moves.
Lily draws her hand back. "You do," she says. If Nina didn't know better, she'd think she was calm, maybe even sensible.
Nina wobbles to her dressing room, trying to ignore the eyes boring into her back. She collapses in a chair; her body is whispering things that buzz madly in her mind, but she screws her eyes shut and tries to block them out, tries not to let them overwhelm her.
She doesn't know how Lily got in, but she has to leave.
"You have to leave," she says, nails catching in a cavity in the wood of the table and almost breaking.
Lily looks up at her, her eyes molten dirt and she looks so human. Looking this human is probably a crime somewhere, and Nina probably belongs in this somewhere. She doesn't belong here, that's for sure.
"No," Lily says fiercely, the tips of her teeth peeking from under her lips. She has nice teeth. Very white.
"Why?" Nina whispers. She doesn't understand.
Lily looks up at her again, her palms spread open on Nina's thighs, kneeling in front of her. She doesn't say anything.
"Why?" Nina repeats softly. Her heart is beating so hard she's a little concerned it's going to leap out of her chest.
Oh well, she thinks before falling in the darkness, it will be one less thing to take care of. And weight loss is always a good thing.
This all feels like a dream. Nina's shoulders relax the slightest bit. It's okay. She can do anything she wants if she's dreaming.
Lily is sitting cross-legged at the end of the bed, her hair around her head like a thick black halo. "Hi," she smiles.
"Lily," Nina says. I want you.
"How is your heart?" Lily asks, looking concerned. It makes a little wrinkle crease her forehead; Nina kind of wants to smooth it over with her fingers.
"Slow," Nina says.
Lily smiles. There's a bit of silence, and for the first time in months, Nina doesn't fill it with the first bars of Swan Lake. It feels good, golden and white.
"Good," Lily says. Her voice is like honey.
"Good," Nina repeats.
"Don't panic," Lily says, and she pushes herself up on her knees, leaning in to press her dry lips against Nina's. Nina sinks into the pillows.
Don't panic. She breathes through her nose.
When she wakes up Nina feels sick and heavy, her mouth sour, tasting of vomit. Lily is asleep, her head on Nina's lap.
It wasn't a dream.
Nina flips her (pink) phone open and gnaws at her (pink) nails through the first four rings, until her (not pink) mother picks up. "Nina," she says, "where were you?"
"I'm at the hospital," Nina whispers. She feels like a robot. Lily doesn't stir. "Didn't they call you?"
"I don't know," her mother says, and there are a few moments of silence as she searches through her phone history, her breathing coming heavy through the line. Nina puts it away from her ear.
"Why are you whispering?" her mother asks, and then: "Come home."
"Okay," Nina says, and murmurs a mechanic I love you before hanging up. "I'm not whispering," she says to the silence.
You are, the silence answers.
Lily doesn't wake up when she leaves. It's just as well. Nina can't believe she kissed her; can't believe she doesn't remember the taste.
Her mother could as well be saying "Bedrest is for the weak." It's what Nina hears anyway.
"I know," she says, and pushes herself up in her bed. She feels her skeleton acutely, every bone pushing against the skin, trying to break out.
"A friend of yours called," Nina's mother says. Her eyebrows are furrowed, you don't have any friends.
"Really," Nina says flatly, no interrogation point.
"Yes," her mother says with hawk eyes. She starts tidying up Nina's room, even though it doesn't need tidying. She re-folds a folded sweater, spider fingers stringing along the seams.
Silence – the silence of the before-shows, the rise of the curtain imminent, adrenalin starting to boil in scrawny arms. Silence, like before the storms, heavy and hot.
"Who is she?"
Nina closes her eyes. "She's a dancer."
"Oh," her mother says.
It's enough. Dancing is always enough.
Nina can do anything. Her mother has told her enough times: she's pretty, she's young, she's healthy, moderately rich: there's no way she can't achieve anything she sets her mind to. This is it. This is the only chance. Perfection.
Nina can dance with a twisted spine and ribs that feel like they're broken. She kind of likes the pain, to be honest.
And then of course there's Lily – the Black Swan –, looking at her from the other side of the room, her eyes dripping with golden brown, her long thighs, the way her chest heaves regularly as she breathes, in, out, in, out, not like Nina (when Nina breathes it's in in in when she's feeling greedy and cold and out out out when it's all too much).
"Why don't you like me?" Lily asks. She takes a sip from her water bottle. A droplet catches on her lips. That's why I don't like you.
"I like you just fine," Nina says. "Besides, I'm not here to like people."
"Don't you ever do anything other than what you're supposed to do?" Lily asks, heavy black exploding at the center of her irises.
Ah, this music. At last.
"Everyone in place! Back to the top!"
Back to the top, Nina thinks as Lily steps back, and stretches her toes.
It takes a lot of coaxing, and Nina doesn't remember having ever agreed to it, but she finds herself in the tube with Lily after the rehearsal. It isn't entirely unpleasant, but it isn't entirely pleasant either.
She feels like she's waking up from a dream, looks around her, meets Lily's eyes. Lily smiles. Nina resents her for being this effortless kind of beautiful.
Nina never takes the tube. She tries not to let the panic overwhelm her, even as her nostrils fill with the acrid scent of sweat and her eyes with the inane conversations. She feels the anxiety pool in her stomach, crawling silently up to her lungs. She'll keep it in, she will.
"What's going on?" Lily asks.
"Nothing," Nina answers, probably too quickly.
Lily cocks her head. "Come here," she says eventually.
"Come here," Lily repeats, and it's like an order, like something too compelling for Nina to resist (or maybe it's just that Nina wants it too much).
She doesn't expect Lily's fingers curling at the base of her neck, tangling in the curls (messing her hair) and Lily pulling her close, until they're chest to chest, Nina's head buried in the crook of Lily's shoulder.
"Breathe," Lily says.
Usually, this would be the moment where Nina would have a panic attack; where she would scream, run, maybe even cry.
Instead, she breathes.
Lily's apartment is slow and ochre, with a metal door and a wooden little table in the middle of the living-room. There are black and white photos in some corners, like friendly ghosts popping in to say hi. Nina hates it. She feels out of place here, even more so than usual.
"Do you want tea?" Lily asks. She's changed into a T-shirt; her hair is down.
Nina tightens her ponytail. "Yes," she answers, mostly out of habit.
Lily makes tea.
They sit on the couch with their mugs, Lily sprawling and relaxed, long golden limbs falling haphazardly over the cushions, and Nina still, back straight and chin high.
A song comes on the radio, softly buzzing from somewhere Nina can't pinpoint. It's a waltz.
Lily brightens. "I love this song," she says.
She finds the radio (maybe it was never hidden), turns the volume on. "We should dance," she says, and reaches a hand out to Nina, as though she really thought Nina was going to take it.
Nina doesn't take it.
There's a moment where Nina sets her mug down with precise fingers, heart beating like a drug-addled hummingbird.
"Good," Lily says softly, looking at her through thick lashes.
Nina doesn't ask what is good. She's not sure she wants to know.
And then it's Lily's arms, abruptly, her long, lean heat against Nina, the palm of her hand pressed against the bone of Nina's hip.
"See," Lily whispers, "it's good."
Nina doesn't answer.
They dance for what feels like eternities but is probably a handful of minutes, turning in inane circles in the middle of Lily's living room.
Then Lily lifts Nina's chin with two fingers, and she looks gentle, more than Nina can handle.
"Kiss me, yeah?" she asks.
No, Nina thinks.
She'll remember the taste of her lips, this time, she thinks too, as the tension bleeds out of her. Lemon chapstick and afternoon tea, with a dash of waltz.