You take a deep breath. You hear the crowd mumble and mutter, like a storm-tossed ocean, and you bite your lip. Hard.
A hand falls onto your shoulder and you look up. Julia squeezes your shoulder and gives you a smile.
“Remember: you don’t have to be good to sell these tracks,” she says. “They’re buying this already because you’re Sidestep.” You smile lightly, laughing as she pulls you into a noogie, messing your hair under your cowl.
“Yeah, yeah, be smug,” you joke, “being seen isn’t so bad.”
She gives you a proud smile as she lets go and you feel...warm. Loved. Like you do with your alley cats, like you do at the dog park, you feel...perfectly in place.
Julia looks up and you follow her line of sight. The stage manager is motioning for you to get ready. “Looks like it’s your time to shine,” Julia replies, “break a leg, Ky.”
“Whose?” You ask, automatically. Julia laughs and you pull the bottom half of your cowl down to conceal your grin.
“What was that quaint song you sang?” Restraints tighten and you bite back a sob. “For the charity show. It was adorable, an animal singing for animals.”
You step onto the stage, clad in your physical and metaphorical armor of Sidestep. Quiet falls across the theater and you guesstimate 300-400 people, maybe more through livestream and television broadcasts.
You inhale slowly and begin to sing, “Little girls...listen closely ‘cause no one told me...” This is the closest you’ve ever gotten to showing your hand, letting the cards fall on the table. “But you deserve to know that in this world, you are not beholden. You do not owe them your body and your soul.”
She smiles down at you, green eyes glittering, echoing the greed and vindication he was broadcasting to you. She wants you to know she’s won.
“I made you,” she replies. “Your body belongs to me and you have no soul. You’re just a glitch.” She pulls out a collar — a dog’s collar, with the metal on the inside, to encourage a misbehaving dog to be quiet — and slowly puts it into your neck. You close your eyes, trying to keep calm and not give her an inch or she’d go for a mile. “We’ll fix that.”
“All the youth in the world will not save you from growing older,” you sing, oblivious to a boy in Boston eating those words and internalizing them, unaware you are giving a herald armor. “And all the truth in the girl is too precious to be stolen from her!”
You feel the discomfort from the crowd, the admiration, the yin and yang of the emotional feedback of the crowd and you inhale sharply.
“It’s just the way it is!” You throw your hand into the air, metaphorical claws showing for the first time as you let the perfect girl, Charge’s polite little sidekick, slide and let you be seen. “Maybe it’s never gonna change, but I’ve got a mind to show my strength and I got a right to speak my mind!”
You close your eyes, imagining all your enemies. Imagining them. “And I’m gonna pay for this! They’re gonna burn me at the stake! But I’ve got a fire in my veins! I wasn’t made to fall in line!” You open your eyes and your mouth forms into a snarl, hidden behind your mask. “No, I wasn’t made to fall in line, nonono.”
You’re in the leotard, it’s black with the stitching that perfectly mirrors the orange tattoos on your skin. You look up at her, careful with your head because of the collar biting into your neck. She holds a bullwhip in her right hand and a box of tictacs in the other.
You fall into routine. You step forward with the grace of a drunk woman, role plastered along your face. You mime the action you’d need to show some cleavage if you were wearing the right clothes and flutter your eyelashes prettily up at the man she has in the training room with you. “I’m-” You force a hiccup. “-lost. Can you call me a cab?” He holds you, helping you stand. He says a lot, but it’s all platitudes meaningless in this moment as you fish out a knife from your tiny purse behind his back.
“Now,” she says and you sink the knife into his back. He falls and you stand at attention.
She walks over, tugging your collar as she continues to walk. She smirks and gives you a tictac. “A treat for my good girl,” she coos. Your face is impassive. She slaps you and you eat the tictac.
She chuckles and sings, “Show some skin, make him want you-”
“-cause God forbid you know your own way home,” you sing and the crowd hits you with another wave of respect, discomfort, agreement, and anger. “And ask yourself why it matters-” you gesture at yourself, at your costume “-who it flatters? You're more than flesh and bones!”
She drags you along a line. “You weren’t made to fall in line?” She pulls your leash and you cry out as the metal in your collar digs into your neck. “Look at how wrong you were, puppy. Walking down a line like a good show dog.”
You walk down the painted line, following her and holding back tears, but only barely. Your neck stung. But you kept your hands at your side and you followed.
“Say it for me,” she stopped, the pressure on your neck alleviating. She looked at you with a pretty smile. “Say what you are.”
“I’m...I’m a good dog.” You feel nauseous from her satisfaction. “I follow orders. I was made to fall in line.”
You finish to applause. You bow, putting back on the metaphorical mask you wear, Charge’s polite sidekick, such a nice girl, did you know she saved my cat from a tree once? The thoughts hit you as you leave the stage and you hunt down Julia for someone who’s not thinking so loudly.
It’s your good luck that she’s also hunting you down, scooping you into a big hug. “I’m so proud of you,” she mutters into your ear and you grin.
You’re back in the ballet room, but there’s lines have been painted along the hardwood floor and instead of her letting you off the leash to do ballet right, she’s dragging you along the lines and forcing you to jog behind her long steps.
“One, two, three,” she sings softly, the sound echoing off the mirrored walls. “Right, two, three.” You’ve learned that you have to force yourself to place your right foot down with every time she says “right”. She stops, spinning around and tapping your jaw shut with a gentle, motherly touch. She sings, “Shut your mouth-” and puts her hand on your hip and it hurts, it hurts from all the bruising from the rehabilitation and it hurts even more when she pushes and you have to bend to her moulding “-stick your ass out for me.” She pauses, looking you up and down. Not in a predatory way, but in the same way a mother looks over their small child before the first day of kindergarten. She turns around again and pulls your collar, making you start to walk.
“March, two, three, one, two, three,” she sings and you make sure you are in sync with her rhythm. “Who told you that you’re allowed to think?”
Julia takes you to her apartment that night. She wants to make you feel safe and you told her this would help, before you agreed to do the charity show for the Los Diablos League of Animal Shelters, so she’s fulfilling her end of the bargain.
The two of you settle in on her couch, under a massive blanket, and watch movies while eating ice cream and drinking water. You let her cuddle up against you as your eyes are wide, taking in the story unfolding before you. A blonde woman (like you!) turning into an actual factual badass when her unappreciative bosses take her for granted. Julia doesn’t know how much hope she’s given you for you having a life of your own.
You give Julia a small smile and she ruffles your hair. You laugh as you let yourself lean back into her.
You hum as you look over Los Diablos, tracing now faded scars along your neck. You’re sitting like a gargoyle, squat on your legs with your hands keeping your balance in the middle. It was easy, after you escaped a second time, to get back here. To come home.
You look over the city — your city, your concrete jungle to prowl and play make believe in — and you sing quietly under your breath, under the sounds of traffic below you, “Maybe it's never gonna change...but I got a mind to show my strength. And I got a right to speak my mind.” You inhale, looking up and seeing a Rangers billboard about public safety above you. Julia’s (no. Ortega. She never looked for you, never came for you. She's Ortega) smiling face, Steel’s serious nature, and the new guy...Herald. “And I'm gonna pay for this! They're gonna burn me at the stake! But I got a fire in my veins! I wasn't made to fall in line. I wasn't made to leave my fate. I'm never gonna fall in line.”