Netta was in his arms - and now in Rowan's - and now back again in the arms of the attacker, who looked at his younger counterpart with disgust and pretended that he didn't know how the ballerina would much rather feel to his arms than to the arms of the man in red. Netta pulled away from his embrace again, fluttering towards Rowan. On her face was a look of pleading, of desperation, as she willed him to protect her.

But how, when this rival was so much older? Rowan was talented but he was young, and until less than a week ago had only been a lowly member of the corps de ballet. He had never danced solo before then, not in front of people who knew. But he had one advantage, and that was Netta.

She wanted him, that much was clear. Him, Rowan, not the man in red. Every time he tried to hold her she shied away as though he was unclean, back to the innocence of her younger partner. This knowledge gave Rowan strength, as did the music that she had allowed to fill him.

"Alekzander," he heard her hiss to the man in red. "What are you doing here tonight, Alekzander?" So that was his name.

"I came for you, my sweet," he replied, his voice as slimy and nauseating as Rowan had imagined. But Netta just turned away, reaching out for her preferred partner.

If it was a matter of who the prima ballerina wanted to dance with, there would have been no contest. But it was not. Rather, it was a matter of who could claim her and who could keep her; though she might aid one or the other, there would be no real favouritisim in this fight, for she knew the rules as well as they did.

It was Rowan that won, snatching his prize from the arms of a heavily breathing Alekzander, clasping her tight to his body - the tutu was a little crushed between them, but would anyone really notice? - until he was sure that the older man could not continue, and smiling up into her grateful face.

"You dance well, considering," said Alekzander at last. "But today will not be the last time." He looked at Netta, a sneer on his face. "Enjoy yourself. You haven't got long."

She was pale with fatigue, shaking from the strain. The moment their enemy had left she collapsed into a chair, pulling at her pointe shoes. "You did well, little Rowan. Thank you." As he looked at her and saw her exhaustion, Rowan couldn't help but wonder what had given him such strength. It was strange - he was hardly tired at all, he could have carried on...

And then the pain hid, the pain which always came after such a high. It was a sacrifice he was unquestionably content to make, but today the degree of agony was slightly more intense, so that he was forced to double over and clutch his fiery-hot legs. So great what his suffering that Rowan did not even notice when Netta put aside her own cares to kneel beside him and hold him as he gasped aloud.

"Because you did it for me," she whispered later, when he asked her why she had stayed. "That dance: it was for me. I couldn't leave you." And at the time? Neither of them said a word; neither of them had a thought in their head about anything except how to stop the fire, the hurting.

The whol world was spinning on its axis in the same way that Netta had spun in his arms just moments before; the stage, chairs and scenery just a blur. As he realised that this was a sign of impending unconsciousness, Rowan whispered, "But who was he? Why was he there?"

Netta may have replied, but he could no longer hear. All he knew as he fainted was the fact that she was still holding him, her champion, with his sweat-drenched head resting on the net of her tutu and her slim hands stroking his hair.

The End

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