"She's not real, I'm telling you."
"Of course she's real. What else could she be?" The argument was set to be heated, monotonous and stale if it were not for the sudden silence that fell in the cafeteria of the dance school's campus. The object of their debate had just entered the room.
"Oh, hi, Netta," said Rowan, as she approached, not expecting her to remember him. The principal dancer was still dressed in a practice leotard and wrap-around skirt, her slim but muscular legs covered by white tights that had clearly seen better days. The clothes and the sweat covering her brow indicated that she had just come from class.
"Rowan." As usual, her musical voice defied all attempts to place the accent which lingered slightly in the rolled 'r's and the stretched vowels. "You were curious about me, were you not?" With an audible sigh, she sank into a chair and accepted the proferred coffee. "You wanted to know more."
Rowan was still surprised that she knew his name. "Well, I suppose I had a few questions..." At that, his friend and debating partner snorted inelegantly. Will would not define the endless torrent of words which had spilled from the newcomer's mouth as 'a few questions'. And after the first day, he hadn't even learned to drop it like everyone else. Netta did not like questions - at least, she had never been heard to answer one.
"Relax. Curiosity never killed anyone, you know." Brushing a few tendrils of damp hair out of her eyes, the ballerina looked up at the youngest member of corps and wondered if perhaps he were the one.
"Except the cat," pointed out Rowan.
"Well, yes. But I dislike cats." Netta frowned and looked at her feet. "So, what was it that aroused your interest? You look at me in a way that nobody else does - like you're looking inside me." She didn't seem put out; on the contrary, it was with an encouraging smile that she spoke her observations.
"You're not like everyone else," he confessed. "I've seen you when you dance. That's the only time that you're happy, and yet it's not because of the dancing itself. It's like someone who comes from a world of music and is exiled here - the only way they can feel at home is when they're playing music. That's how you behave, but with dance."
"Perceptive," she breathed. Around them, other students gathered, eager to hear what she would say. "And yet who are you to be so nosy? You're just a new kid. Go on, get away from here." The open, friendly atmosphere vanished as quickly as it had come, and she was back to her usual imperious self. Rowan was certain that Netta was upset because of something he had said: he must have angered her.
Yet the dancer was not angry at him in the least. She was surprised at how deep into her defences he had managed to pierce, and amazed at his intelligence. This boy had to be the one, he had to. After all these years, to find that a member of the corps understood her would be heaven indeed, and she wouldn't have to hide any longer.
"You really blew it then," said Will to his friend, as they walked back to the studio for training. "She'll never tell you anything again, not after that. What made you say all that?"
"I don't know," said Rowan. "But I wonder..." His musings were interrupted by their ballet master entering the room.
"Today we work on the Nutcracker. We haven't got much longer until the performance, and some parts are extremely weak. Hurry up and get your shoes on, so that we may start." Fearful of the man's temper, the students went to their bags. There would be no contemplating mysterious ballerinas now, not during class. But they were in for a surprise.
"Madame Netta is going to join us today," the ballet master announced. "We will run through the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy." That was always good to watch. Rowan, unlike Will, did not have much of a role in this scene, and so he could relax a little.
"But we can't," piped up one girl, a petite brunette named Sara. "James is ill, so we have no Prince. That puts paid to almost the whole performance." The ballet master went white and turned to Netta, who was already tying her shoes.
"You knew this, of course?" She nodded. "Very well. You all know his part - it was the audition piece. Rowan, you're not doing anything, and I'm sure you're strong enough for this. Come and play our Prince for today."