I stretch in my flats, bouncing on the balls of my feet in the hallway. Every inch of my body screams from the tension and stiffness acquired during the long flight. My stomach growls, the only noise in the hallway, until I turn and knock on Zed’s door again. The hotel hallway doesn’t smell pleasant and my room smells like smoke, despite it theoretically being a non-smoking room. If he’s not ready, I’m not spending another moment here. I’ll walk to the studio by myself, if I have to.
Adrian pulls open the door and gives me an easy smile. “He’s doing his hair for you.”
“Oh, God,” I mutter and then yell over Adrian’s shoulder, “Zedekiah! I don’t care what your hair looks like!”
“Now I know you’re lying,” Adrian stage-whispers and I grin despite my anxiety about getting to the studio on time.
“What? Oh, for fuck’s sake, McKinley,” Zed yells back from somewhere inside the room. “Aly, give me a hot second.”
“What about a cold second?” I say, but I’m not sure if he hears me until he appears, breathless next to Adrian in the doorway, and shakes his head.
“God, that was almost a joke. Look at you trying to keep up with me, the master of puns,” he teases, then leans forward, pressing a kiss to my forehead. Adrian smirks at my blush, and I shoot him a warning look. Zed, oblivious, bends down to tie his shoes, his ballet bag slung over his shoulder. “Adrian, you’re sure you’re not coming?”
“It’s not even an official class. You two are just nuts,” he points out, like he’s not surprised that we’re dashing off to steal a few minutes of dance from the day before the company dinner. “I’m taking a nap.”
“Your body adjusts to travel better when you don’t take naps upon arrival in a new time zone,” I remind him. “It’s like staying hydrated on a plane.”
Zed laughs and takes my hand, lacing our fingers together. “He knows, Kitten. Come on. We only have an hour and you’re going to take forever to warm up.”
Sometimes I wait for the alarm registering in my body, something that’ll tell me that Zed knows me too well. I keep searching for the bells that will bring up the gates. But around Zed, I throw caution to the wind. I’ve danced Giselle more than once. I should know the fate of girls who fall for the charming prince. I’ve waited seven years to feel distrust and it’s never happened.
Outside, the setting sun lights up the crystals of snow clinging to the tree limbs overlooking canals. Our shoes soak straight through, and I wish I’d thought to bring something more waterproof. It’ll be hell to warm up tired, aching feet that are also soaked in freezing water. Dozens of people had turned the frozen canals into long, narrow ice rinks. For a brief moment, I want to join the skaters in their colorful, wild, improvised dance on ice.
Then I remember that this is my first tour for the company and I’m supposed to be the American prodigy. Prodigies don’t get injured doing something stupid. Prodigies put their careers ahead of everything else, including recreation, school, and romance.
Bikes swerve through traffic, traveling faster than they do at home in Philadelphia, and the mopeds make me jump more than twice. Zed stops on our walk to take a dozen photos of different old buildings and to read off the Lonely Planet app on his phone. In the edge of the last warm light along our walk, he stops to pull me against his side and take a photo.
“Aly,” he says, studying the screen. “You could stand to look a little happy.”
“I look happy!” I protest. But I don’t look happy. I look tired and really cold. I roll my eyes. “Fine, take another.”
He takes two more, goofing off in the second one, just to make me laugh. He stares at the second for a moment and then passes me the phone. His oversized aviator sunglasses and his scarf frame his strong jaw, his dark hair a shock over his light skin, and he’s pressing a kiss to my temple. My hair’s so light it gets lost in the sunlight, but it’s my expression I can’t stop staring at. My face is scrunched up as I’m laughing, but my smile is genuine, broad.
I touch his side with two light fingers. “Send that to me when we get home?”
“Yeah,” he says, his voice a little hoarse. He sounds like he does after a big performance. “Of course. I think the studio’s this way.”
The Dutch National Ballet is one of the best in the world, and they’re gorgeous to watch. They’ve loaned us rehearsal space for our week as guest artists, but it’s hard not to just stand at the windows and doorways of their classes and watch them. In return, their students crowd the doorway when Zed and I begin to stretch next to the mirrors.
Zed looks over my head and hides a smile behind his arm. “They’re all here to see the famous Alyona Miller.”
I curtsy dramatically. “I am rather famous, you know.”
“You got like six hundred likes on your plane selfie. I don’t even know how that’s possible,” he says, studying his reflection in the mirror as he arches his feet and lays his torso flat on the floor. “And your humility. It blows me away.”
“Oh, shut up and stretch,” I tell him, nudging him with my foot. I just catch his smile as he ducks his head so I relax and smile too. I like when we’re like a ballet, full of twists and turns but always reaching for each other.
We don’t have much time, so we breeze through our barre work. I lift my chin and check my lines in the mirror, meeting his eyes. He looks calm and confident, his white shirt stretched across his strong chest, his ripped abdomen pressing against the material with every breath, his feet turned out slightly even at ease.
“Remember when we got our first pas de deux?” Zed’s hand returns to the barre and he counts off exercises silently, his lips moving just enough for me to follow his lead. All these years, I’ve been following, and he’s never noticed.
“Ugh. Yes. And you were mad about it! You were dating Dana.” I snap a little bit, on purpose, just to see him smile. We turn, Zed following me now. I step into an arabesque and he grabs my foot, lifting it a little higher. My hips ache. “She was absurd. So clingy. Where’s she dancing now?”
“Jealousy’s unbecoming,” he says, not taking my bait, and then lets go of my foot. “And you know there’s no competition. I wasn’t mad. I just didn’t know who I was more afraid of—you or Dana.”
I stick out my tongue. “Always me.”
His hand catches mine, and out of pure instinct, I let him quickly turn me twice away from the barre. “I’m not scared of you, Alyona.”
I think he should be, but selfishly, I’m glad. I shake my head at him, stepping a safe distance away to my starting place. I’m glad we’re dancing together again, but I’m more than a little bit terrified. I want to know what dancing with Zed feels like in front of an audience, a real one, not just at school. I want witnesses to what Zed makes me feel when we dance together.
Zed dances the pas de deux like a dozen love letters tossed into the air. Like watching The Notebook in bed with a pint of ice cream. It’s dancing in the rain and splashing through a fountain in the middle of the night. It’s someone who stops, looks up at the sky and takes your hand to trace the constellations with your finger. He turns this pas de deux from something tense and erotic into something more like a challenge that can’t end any way but with a kiss.
“Aly,” he says, and I realize I’ve been standing in the center just staring at myself for who knows how long. “You alright?”
I clear my throat. “Yes. Sorry. Count off from the top?”
He doesn’t even blink. He nods and returns to his position. He’s waiting for me. If only life was as well choreographed as this dance, I think, and take my first step toward him.
Sometimes, we dance this pas de deux as an inquiry. Today, we dance it like a dare. His offered hand is almost sly, like he knows I’ll have to say yes, and my returned hand is defiantly reluctant. I slow my breathing. We have no music, but Zed counts off softly, and on the fourth count, I look over my shoulder. This moment, when our eyes make contact across the stage…it stings my palms and kick-starts my heart.
When we meet in the middle of the studio, in a series of moments where neither our hands nor our eyes ever part from each other, I can’t handle the intensity in his expression, the way he pushes a little into my wrists. As my partner, he’s only supposed to support me, keep me from falling off balance, allow me to do movements I otherwise couldn’t do. Today, his touch feels like a gauntlet thrown into the precious space between us.
Our fingers fight wars with each other, and the electricity between our eyes could light cities. He throws his weight into his front leg, his arms taut, as he braces against me, arching away, and then swiveling back on the ball of his foot. The pas de deux contains no acrobatics, huge jumps, or fast turns, but it’s one of the hardest to dance with its hyperextended legs, its huge movements and staying on pointe for long periods of time. Without pointe shoes tonight, we stay in demi-pointe.
Halfway there, in every way. This is almost enough.
And not at enough at all. Here, dancing with him, all the carefully drawn lines in our relationship are erased. Here, I let go, so when I look at him, neither of us can look away. When Zed lifts his chin, his lips part a little and I can’t help but stare at the tiny vertical lines from where they chap and split because he worries at them.
The next time he pulls me close, our noses brush together and our hands collide, the heel of my hand pressing against the bottom of his wrist. He catches my hand firmly, swiveling his hip, his knee brushing along the inside of my knee. I look at the inside of his wrist, at the tendons that bend away from his joints, the streaks of glistening sweat.
I think about his arms, over my head, pressing my hands down into a mattress. I suck in a breath and fall flat to my feet, stepping away from him so he’s forced to drop my hands. I don’t care what he’s saying because it’s all I can do to press my palms to my eyes, push the images from my mind, focus instead on the dance.
“What’s wrong?” Zed asks, squatting next to me.
“You’re not staying with me!” I snap, and rise to my feet, not looking at him as I pace away a few steps. I wipe my sweaty palms on my leotard, and when I look in the mirror, I tell myself the color in my cheeks is from the exercise.
“You have to stay with me. You’re getting ahead of me and it’s throwing me off.” My chest seizes up at the sound of desperation in my voice.
Zed’s brow knits together. I want to hold his head, press my mouth against the lines on his forehead and apologize. Then he tilts his head and his face relaxes, his eyes suddenly brighter. I can’t move at the sudden, quiet understanding in his expression.
“Okay,” he says, his voice so soft I know it’s meant for only me. “I get it. I’ll stay with you. From the top?”
This time, there’s no challenge. When Zed offers his hand, it’s an invitation that I accept.