Two months before she intends to audition for the New York City Ballet, Myka shatters her foot.
It happens when Pete is lifting her in the arabesque. His hand slips from her waist and her body tips forward. She scrambles to catch herself on his arm, and ends up pulling him down with her, all onto her toe extended in perfect pointe, which bends the wrong way with a sickening snap.
She emerges from surgery with four pins rebuilding her arch. She emerges from anaesthesia with Pete in tears beside her bed, and a doctor delivering the knowledge that she will never dance again.
She is furious with Pete, but he is so furious with himself, she can't hold the grudge.
His hands shake when he talks about it. She watches the tremor and then raises her eyes to his and says, "Don't do what you're thinking of doing. You have to keep it together and do this for both of us, now."
For the pas de deux of his audition, Pete is partnered with an up-and coming member of the chorus. Myka has come with him, finally off crutches and in a walking boot. She watches him warming up on the barre. The chorus dancer warms up with him, lets him lift her so they can feel one another's balance. She is humorless, this dancer; Myka watches Pete trying to joke with her, to win her over with his square jaw and dimples and easy laugh, but her jaw remains firm, focused.
While Pete performs his solo, Myka watches the dancer practicing her steps in the warm-up studio.
("She's, like, every obnoxious ballerina stereotype rolled into one," Pete says to her, later. "Snobby, frigid, uppity, the works. I kind of wish she weren't good enough to back it up.")
Myka should be watching Pete. She knows. But she can't tear her eyes away from the fluidity of the ballerina's motion, the perfect balance of her pliés and jetées. Myka never looked that good, herself, she knows.
She could watch this woman dance for days.
When Pete is accepted, the first thing he does is get Myka a job as a wardrobe assistant for the company.
"It's the least I can do," he says.
She is assigned as a dresser for the prima of their newest production. The prima will be the woman paired with Pete in his audition, in her first leading role. Her name is Helena Wells, and she is as firm and humorless in the dressing room as in the studio.
"You came to that Peter fellow's audition," she says, when they first meet.
"Yeah," Myka says.
Helena's eyes track down to the bulky blue boot on Myka's right foot. "Watch my toes when you wear that around me, yes?"
Myka swallows. "Yes. Of course."
During rehearsals and blocking, Myka only sees Pete in his off time. She doesn't see Helena at all. She's squirreled away in storage, adjusting and mending the costumes for the upcoming production, while Helena is in the studio, flowing through her choreography.
"The girl actually does not know how to laugh. It's like she never learned as a baby," Pete says one evening, through a mouthful of sushi.
Myka is out of her boot and in physical therapy to rebuild the atrophied muscle and correct the developing limp.
In the evenings, once everyone has gone home, she slips into the practice studio and flows through steps barefoot, standing at the barre. Her physical therapist would hate it, but it makes her feel more whole than she's felt in months.
Then, one evening, the sound of something dropping and an exhaled curse. Myka spins around in time to see a gust of dark hair disappearing past the edge of the doorframe.
She begins the job of dressing Helena when they begin dress rehearsals. She unwraps her from one gown and ribbons her into another, over and over.
Helena doesn't talk much. She issues commands, and nods curtly when the costume has been fitted to her satisfaction.
Hook-and-eye closures give way to lithe, rippled muscle beneath Myka's fingers, and then muscle tucks into hiding behind a new corset. As the evening wears on, the pale skin dampens, a spine with prominent ridges channeling a tiny rivulet that wets Myka's fingertips as she eases fastenings apart and tugs them together. When she sends Helena back out onto the stage, she glances down and watches her fingers glisten, for a moment, before she wipes them on a towel.
In the practice studio, Myka slips her left foot into the familiar, uncomfortable mold of her pointe shoe. Then she tries the right, but the arch won't give the way it needs to, her toes won't gather as the fit requires.
She takes the shoe off and hurls it across the room.
She sees Helena take her shoes off, one evening. The fine-boned feet that emerge are callused, blackened, bleeding in places.
"What?" Helena says, after Myka hisses in empathy.
It's part of the job she doesn't miss, Myka admits. Maybe the only part. But still.
Myka is out for two days with food poisoning.
When she comes back, Helena's lips twitch, just a little, like they'd been thinking of smiling. "Good," she says. "That set manager couldn't dress me well if I drew her diagrams of how to do it."
("She's so particular," the bedraggled set manager, Claudia, says to Myka, later. "I don't have time for that crap. I don't. That's why I like to deal with, you know, backdrops. They don't snark at me.")
Myka's hands smooth fabric over curves, shape crinoline below bodice, align ribbons to lie flat against flesh.
The show will tour, but it starts at home, at Lincoln Center.
At the end of the show, Helena all but floats into her dressing room, high on adrenaline and endorphins and applause and pride.
Myka wonders what it must feel like – to complete one's first performance as the lead.
"God, that was amazing," Helena says, and Myka startles. They don't exchange that kind of small talk, usually.
"It was," Myka replies. Then, "You were amazing."
Myka unfastens the closures down the back of Helena's bodice while Helena rests one foot, then the other, on the edge of the counter to untie her shoes.
Myka takes the gown to hang it on the rack on the side of the room. And when she turns around, Helena is there. Close. She's removed her tights and has wrapped herself in a short satin robe, its halves forming a deep V that ends between her breasts, and she's glowing, radiating the energy of performance, her skin glistening, her eyes bright.
And then Helena is against her, crushing their mouths together. She fists her fingers in the front of Myka's t-shirt and stumbles backward, toward the counter, leading Myka by the lips, and when they bump against the edge Myka fits her hands around Helena's narrow waist and lifts her onto the surface, scattering makeup and hairpieces. The robe falls away from Helena's shoulders and Myka is caressing a small breast that she's seen before, even touched before, as she adjusted the fit of a bodice, but not like this, not surrounded by the oily scent of stage makeup and the merciless sound of Helena panting against her lips. Helena unfastens the belt at her waist and urges Myka lower—first her fingers, until they slip into wet and warmth, and then her tongue; Myka is on her knees before the prima ballerina who is gasping Myka's name, leaning back against the mirror, one hand braced on the counter and the other gripping Myka's curls.
After, Myka stands slowly. She wipes her mouth against the back of her hand, and then her hand against the thigh of her pants. Helena slides off the counter until she's standing. She tugs the robe around her and knots it again at her waist.
Helena smiles, almost shyly, and turns away. She reaches for the makeup remover where it shuttled off into the corner between the mirror and the wall.
Myka steps quietly out of the room.
She's pretty sure that was the first time she ever heard Helena say her name.
The next day, Myka arrives to find Helena's mask is back in place. They don't talk. They certainly don't kiss. They definitely don't fuck on Helena's makeup counter.
Myka straps a one-pound ankle weight to her right leg.
"You're going to hurt yourself, pushing things like that," Pete says.
"I want it fixed," Myka says. "I can't stand this limp."
Pete can only shake his head. He knows what she gets like when she gets like… this.
The show goes on tour. Myka's physical therapist gives her exercises to work on every day while she's on the road.
She uses the dresser in her hotel rooms as a barre so she can run through her positions every day.
Helena doesn't speak to her, except to say "too tight" or "something's digging into my skin here." She nods, curtly, when she's satisfied, before venturing out onto the stage.
Myka watches her, sometimes, from the wings. When she can bear it. The danceur noble who plays opposite her is named Steve, and he's as young and virtuosic as Helena herself.
("I wish I could hate him," Pete says, "But he's really such a stand-up guy.")
Helena doesn't dance. She floats and flutters, she moves as though gravity does not apply to her. When she falls into Steve in romantic embrace, Myka's heart lurches for her. When she stares down the evil sorcerer, Myka's pulse quickens.
The contrast between her stage persona and her dressing room persona is overwhelming. It's as though she bottles all her emotions and looses them at once for her audience, infusing them into the very air of the theatre.
Myka dresses her every day and tries, evening after evening, to convince herself that every fiber of her being isn't reaching out in want.
She keeps her pointe shoes in her suitcase. When she's not limping anymore, she takes them out, and tries to slip them on.
Even when there's no visible impact of her injury but the surgical scars, she can't wear the shoe. Her foot just won't bend that way—not anymore.
At the barre, one evening alone, she lifts into an arabesque. On her good, left foot, she holds it on her toe. Then she tries it on the right, flat-footed, and stumbles. She closes her eyes and breathes; exhales softly and tries again. The muscle quivers and she stumbles again but this time there are hands on her waist, steadying her.
She opens her eyes, and there's Pete, grinning back at her.
"You know the steps of the pas-de-deux in the second act, right?" he says.
He winks, then takes Steve's pose in the middle of the floor. Myka grins back and takes Helena's. And then they're dancing again, like they did for years when they were partnered, Myka adapting the steps so she can do them flat-footed and barefoot. The jetées are awkward on her bad foot, but they manage; once or twice, Myka loses her balance, but Pete catches her, every time.
At the end, she's grinning like she hasn't grinned in months.
Neither she nor Pete notice recalcitrant eyes watching from the dark behind the doorway.
Two days later, Myka picks up her bag in the evening to find that someone has printed off the admissions webpage for the Tisch School's MFA in dance.
The header is a picture of contemporary dancers in performance. Someone has circled their feet in pen.
They are all barefoot.
"This was sweet of you," she says to Pete, the next morning.
He squints at her. "Huh? What?"
"The Tisch stuff?"
"What Tisch stuff?"
Months pass. The tour culminates in Los Angeles. They are getting good reviews overall, but Helena, in particular, is being celebrated.
"A revelation," says the Chicago Sun-Times.
"New York's answer to Volochkova," says the Boston Globe.
Helena behaves no differently than she ever has, silent and detached in her dressing room, until that last night, a night of four curtain calls and extended standing ovations. She spins, glowing, into her dressing room again, as she had that time in New York.
Myka expects it this time. Helena turns against Myka's hands when Myka is kneeling behind her, half-finished unfastening her dress, and she bends down, bends her lips toward Myka's, and Myka has wanted this—has wanted this so much, so often, has wanted those long fingers that touch her cheeks, now, has wanted the soft tongue that hides behind darkened lips—
But not like this.
She turns her head. Catches Helena's wrists in her fingers and pulls them away.
"That's now how this works," Myka says. She stands and steps back. "I trust you can get the rest of those hooks on your own?"
Helena, bright-eyed and lit-up as a firefly, wilts, almost imperceptibly. It's enough to make Myka almost want to take it back, to make her want to reach for her across the space she's put between them.
But she's got too much self-respect for that.
She doesn't wait for an answer. She leaves. Leaves the room, leaves the theatre, pays for a taxi back to the hotel.
Myka is blissfully alone in the room. Claudia is technically her roommate, but she bunks with Steve most of the time; he has is own room as the danceur noble, where they can watch all the loud pay-per-view movies they want.
Myka lies still on one bed and stares at the ceiling for long minutes. Blindly, she reaches down into the bag she's left on the floor beside her, fishing for the Tisch school application she's kept filed away there since she got it.
She can't stay with the company. She can't keep doing this. This is Helena's home, and maybe Pete's, but it can't be hers. Not really.
She's stood up and is halfway to the table by the window, intending to start work on the application, when she hears the knock on the door.
But she goes and opens it anyway.
"Hello." It's Helena.
Helena as Myka can't remember ever seeing her. She wears warm-ups to the theatre but now her long hair falls down over a beige leather jacket and a button-down shirt and jeans, and Myka thinks this is how she'd look if she went out one night, for a drink with friends.
She's carrying a bottle of champagne in one hand and two flutes in the other.
"Celebratory drink for the end of the tour?" she says, eyebrows climbing into a hopeful expression.
Myka glances down, bemused, but steps back and holds the door for her.
Helena sets the glasses on the dresser, unwraps the foil from the bottle-neck and then removes the wire retainer. She eyes the cork warily, until Myka finally reaches over and says, "Here."
"Thank you, darling," Helena says, and Myka tries not to flinch at the endearment. "I so rarely have reason to handle these bottles."
Myka eases the cork out with a rush of air and then hands the softly fizzing bottle back to Helena, who pours a glass for each of them.
"To a show well-finished," she says, glass in the air.
Myka raises her glass and nods, but before she can touch it to her lips the words charge out: "I don't understand you. I don't understand you at all."
Helena's glass lowers, untouched, from the space before her lips. She looks down, and then she shrugs, and for the first time in their acquaintance Myka thinks she looks lost. Helena turns toward the window.
"I couldn't have done this show without you," she says, finally. "I never thanked you. I know you don't get much credit."
"You're welcome," Myka says.
"And I've seen you dance," Helena says. Blurts, really.
Myka shifts uncomfortably.
"Almost every evening," Helena says. "I've stopped to watch you before I went home, and… I'm torn between grieving the talent lost to the world when you were injured, and thanking my lucky stars that you weren't able to audition."
Myka blinks, puzzled. "What would you have lost if I'd auditioned? You were already in the company."
Helena chuckles and looks far out the window, toward the horizon. She shrugs. "I would have lost this lead."
Myka has never been good at taking compliments. Her mouth opens and closes, and she pulls her hair away from her face, even though it was never anywhere near her face really.
"That's not true."
"Myka—" Helena's focus shifts and she's looking at Myka, now, in the reflection of the window glass.
"I appreciate the sentiment, but it's not true. You don't dance, Helena, you turn your body into the music. It's like you actually merge with the orchestra, I've never seen anyone—"
"I'm not good at this, Myka." Helena wheels around, her sudden movement interrupting Myka's babble of words.
"Good at what? At dancing?"
"At… people." She pulls her fingers through her hair and Myka thinks it might be the sexiest thing she's ever seen. And she wants those fingers to be her fingers, she wants those black strands caressing the arches between her own knuckles.
"I find you ever so lovely, Myka," Helena is saying, and Myka's brain is tripping to catch up. "I didn't know how to show it. I never knew how to show it. And now we're entering the hiatus, I hoped perhaps you might want to—oh, dinner feels such a trite suggestion—"
It's enough. Myka downs her still-untouched champagne in one swallow and lets the flute fall to the carpet as she strides across the floor and drives her fingers into long, soft hair.
It's different, this time. It's Helena touching, tasting and it's Myka trembling on cool sheets, Myka stifling sobs into thick hotel pillows.
And then it's Helena, not commanding but surrendering, body arching and falling with half the grace and twice the passion that Myka has seen onstage and Myka lifts her higher, holds her like the danceur in a pas-de-deux, until she trembles and falls and Myka catches her, presses her against her chest.
Nine months later, Myka auditions for Tisch.
The costume is simple—contemporary dance demands less, that way, than ballet—but Helena dresses her anyway.