"Your feet are bleeding." They were five minutes into class later that day, running through part of the Nutcracker. James was recovering from his illness and had agreed that when he was well enough, he would watch Rowan in his role for a day or two until he felt up to dancing it once more; before the epic dance-off with Alekzander, the idea would have terrified Rowan, but now it didn't bother him.
"It's fine, honestly," said Neta, looking down at her feet. But Richard, their teacher, choreographer and dance master, was not convinced. He had seen too many dancers injure themselves dancing when their feet were damaged, and he would not stand for Netta to continue with the blood seeping through her battered pointe shoes. "I can dance. I'll be fine." Yet she stumbled as she took her place, overcome by tiredness.
"I don't think so, somehow." Richard took her firmly by the arm and led her to a chair, forcing her to sit and watch. "Stay there for now." He pressed a button the CD player and the class began their warm ups. Rowan went to do the same, but he was caught almost immediately by the instructor's eagle eye. "You too, Rowan. What have you been doing? Anyone would think you had danced all night."
Rowan avoided Netta's gaze as he took a seat. He didn't need to see her face to know that she, too, was smiling.
James sat down on one of the chairs near the piano, looking forward to seeing his unoffical understudy dance. They would be practicing from a recording today, so there would be no pianist with whom he could chat ildly. Looking around, he saw Netta warming up, with Rowan beside her, talking quietly.
This 'prince' had danced with Netta for almost two years, but he had never seen her dance at night time, and he had never managed to 'plumb into' the music in quite the same way that Rowan had. Now he was astonished to see how connected the two were, for such a short acquaintance.
"Take your places, please, and we'll do a full run-through." It wasn't a dress rehearsal - the first performance was not for another month - but all of the dancers were in costume, in order to get a feel for the clothes. The company had not put on Nutcracker for many eyars, and for the youngest members it was their first performance of that particular ballet, barring an amateur production or two.
James, once the lights had gone down (the operator was only sixteen but he needed the money and so they more less gave him free rein; it had paid off, as he was very good at his work), forgot that this was a rehearsal four weeks before a performance. He forgot that the prince was a blow-in, an amateur, and that he had only had a week to learn the part. It seemed to him that he watched the greatest dancers ever to live: as he watched Netta and Rowan he saw how well they fitted together, noticed immediately the understanding in their faces and knew, at that moment, that he could not do better.
They had been reprieving their earlier duet at a word from Richard, who saw the expression on James's face, but now the show was well and truly finished.
"Well, James, any tips for our youngest Prince?"
The dancer shook his head. "This is nothing I could teach him. He is already twice the dancer I will ever be." Walking over, he faced Rowan and in a whisper said, "Look after Netta, Rowan. Don't ever let her go." His hand was on the door handle before anyone really understood what he planned to do.
"Don't leave!" said Richard, suddenly comprehending.
"You don't need me here," said James, without any trace of bitterness, but just a hint of sadness. "Goodbye, Netta. It was amazing, but it's over now. I never understood you and I never will, but you've got Rowan now." With that, he turned and left the room.