“Yeah, yeah, I know. Fuck off, I hate people, go away, you bother me, whatever. You ever going to share why the hell you put holes in targets every Monday?”
Today was apparently the day to quiz Bryn. “Because I like it.”
“I like cake. I don’t get up early and skip massage for it.”
“You would if you could.”
Medea snorted, and Bryn breathed a quiet sigh of relief at her waning interest. “So next question.”
“You going to the Benefit for the Center thing?”
Bryn looked up from his legs. “What?”
Medea rested on her stomach, starting to stretch out her hips. “The benefit. At the Bel. Wednesday. Champagne. Food. Movers and shakers and donations galore?”
“I’d…” Bryn panicked. He’d been counting on the days between ballets to catch up on his rest. His knee had been feeling loose, though it was deemed fine by the physical therapist. His shoulders were solid sheets of tension thanks to all the lifts in The Firebird
. Jules was a miniature human, but raising and lowering over a hundred pounds on rinse repeat took its toll.
“You’d forgotten.” Medea smirked. “Well, remember. You have to be there.”
Medea was right. Bryn would be on parade at the benefit, shaking hands and talking politely to ancient ballet enthusiasts who loved dance. Not to mention the old husbands who kept staring at Bryn’s ass.
Jules would be there to keep him company, and it had to be even worse on her. Forget the old-man leers. Competition in the ballet world was beyond fierce; it was bloodthirsty. Jules had a few more years before the younger dancers would start looking better to choreographers, but she still felt the pressure. It came from a long history of family conditioning to be perfection itself. Bryn could relate. Jules would have made his mother proud.
Medea rolled her eyes. “Your phone. Is ringing.”
Bryn tugged the other earbud out of his ear. A hissing chorus of monster rock chattered through the speaker, and without the noise to cover the sound, Bryn heard his Apocalyptica ringtone. He dug the phone out of his bag, saw the name, and shut the phone off completely.
“Ex-boyfriend?” Medea teased.
Bryn didn’t bother to reply. His insides were momentarily watery, so to shake it off, he stood up and walked to the barre. Medea followed, not so easily swayed. She positioned herself in front of and facing him. “So guess who gets to go for five hours without a break today?” she asked.
“Do I have to?”
She flashed the wicked grin again. “Yes.”
“Good one. You’re no better, though. They’ll run you through all of The Firebird
and start talking The Sleeping Beauty
.” She sighed dramatically. “I hate the story ballets.”
Bryn stretched his feet. “How can you hate them?”
“Oh please. Not everybody is as gay as you, for one.”
“Yes. For the other, the cast is damned huge. There’s no room to show the world I’m better than them all.”
“You’ll have your solo.”
“For like six seconds.” Medea growled. “Asshole.”
Medea’s jealousy was legendary. “You’d be up there with me in a heartbeat.”
“Just show me who I have to kill.”
Bryn gave a breathless laugh. “You’re even more screwed-up than me.”
“I win that competition every day.” Medea quirked her head, her eyes round as saucers, and Bryn chuckled again. Satisfied, Medea smiled. “Thanks for noticing, dickwad.”
“You’re welcome, bitchcunt.”
“Oooh, nice one.”
The last few dancers straggled in with coffees or teas in hand. Bryn nodded to Jules, who looked hungover but was undoubtedly just exhausted. Dennis hit a note on the piano in the corner and banged on the key to announce the arrival and readiness of Karen, the head ballet mistress. Class started with the barre, and as the class moved in unison through the positions of pliéss, there was a chorus of cracking joints. Bryn babied his knee, testing it, and it seemed fine.
By the time he was stretching forward after the ronde de jambes
, there were rivers of sweat running along the lines of his body. He shed a layer, tossing the clothes onto his bag as the class moved the barres out of the way to make room for center work. Bryn had a chat with his body, soothing it and encouraging it. The jumping now would help the jumping later, he knew. He never wanted to do his real warming up on stage. The stage was reserved for out-of-body experiences. The classroom was where the work happened.
For a blissful forty-five minutes, there was nothing but the beat of music and the execution of combination after combination. The last jumping combo was killer, and Bryn debated on whether or not to do it. He’d need his energy later, but in the end, his sense of competition and love of a challenge outdid him. The tours en l’air
went on forever, and when he was done, he was soaking wet. Karen announced the end of class, which was cut short thanks to performance season. Bryn checked the clock. He had a break until one and then rehearsal until five.
Time enough for body work, coffee, and lunch. Bryn raced down the stairs to the third floor and made his way to the therapy room. Tables curtained off like ER suites lined two walls. There were ultrasound machines, lasers, and all manner of devices designed to keep dancers held together with science, duct tape, and prayers. Bryn had no trouble getting a table, and Sharon, an MD specializing in the field of dance medicine, examined his knee and hip and pronounced him capable. He wasn’t that worried, really, but it paid to be careful. He requested a psoas muscle release because he knew it’d help him with the jumps and lifts later. He breathed while the masseuse pushed deeply with her fingertips into his lower abdomen, and when his eyes were closed, his thoughts drifted back to the redhead at the range. How had a farm boy ended up in New Amsterdam? Military family? Probably. Or just military, period. Most men at the ranges Bryn frequented had some experience in the armed services. Or maybe Ellis had come to NA with hopes of some crazy career. Acting or singing or God only knew. Though Ellis didn’t strike Bryn as the performance type. Too much stuttering and honesty. Bryn would give the guy that much: Ellis did earnest like nobody’s business.
“Good, good,” the masseuse said. Her name was Rachel, Bryn remembered. She eased off, and Bryn exhaled. “Want me to work on your shoulders?”
“Yes,” Bryn said and rolled over. His belly rumbled with hunger. His thoughts tumbled around the Reuben on rye he could get from the deli a block away from the Bel, and mixed in the daydream tangle was more Ellis. Bryn gritted his teeth. It seemed the gun boy was not going to go easily back into his box. Well, okay, then. Bryn could let the fantasies take over for a few minutes. If it was a crush, it’d be easier in the long run to let the possibilities and sexual whatevers skip through his brain on their way out the door than to lock them up in their own cage. He might not date, he might not deal with his dick on anything close to a regular basis, but despite his best efforts, his humanity sometimes got the best of him.
Doing anything with Ellis was out of the question. Any man who persisted like Ellis was not the kind of guy up for a fast blowjob or quick fuck. Even if Bryn was misreading the signs and Ellis surprised him, there would still be that unspoken question of would it happen again. And Bryn couldn’t let it happen often enough to start to like it. Bryn didn’t do people. No exceptions.
So fucking Ellis would mean Bryn would have to change ranges, and he wasn’t going back to Shoot Fast. He certainly wasn’t caravanning for longer than an hour to squeeze off a few. He’d take up archery before he crossed state lines. Hell, basket weaving. Knitting would be better, for Chrissakes.
Still, he couldn’t deny the need flickering to life and surging through him. Surely it had more to do with how long it’d been and nothing to do with a random redhead at a shooting range. The last time he’d gotten any had been months ago, and it’d been that kid at the bar. The one with black hair and a lip ring. Medea had talked Bryn into going out, and the boy had been barely legal and dying for a dick in his mouth. Bryn had obliged after one too many gin and tonics.
Bryn wasn’t keen on the idea of going out again with Medea, hunting for warm bodies with willing orifices. Every time he did, she pushed him and his boundaries to the point of breaking. Or fucking, as the case might be. Bryn wasn’t about to sleep with anyone at the Bel. He’d made the rookie mistake of fucking corps boys back in the day. That led to drama and screaming fits in the wings during rehearsals.
So that meant he’d have to come up with some other way to cope. He could hit up a random bar, find a guy and a convenient bathroom stall, or log in to one of the dozen apps he had on his phone. None of the prospects sounded good.
Damn Medea, damn boys, and damn him. He didn’t have time for this shit.
“Better?” Rachel asked, finishing up.
“Much,” Bryn lied. “Thank you.”
Pleasantries out of the way, Bryn bundled up in his layers once again and headed first to his dressing room to drop off his bag. He shared the room with a soloist who’d been out for over half the season—Achilles tendon.
Bryn tossed his bag onto his dressing table, began to turn, and his breath lodged in his throat. His heart beat wildly against his breastbone, and he froze in place, unable to move.
The flicker was there. He’d seen it. Just in the edges of his vision. Right beyond his conscious awareness. A shadow darting into a corner; a body gliding on invisible ice; the last threads of a nightmare fading from a dream.
Bryn counted to ten and breathed before he whirled. His breath whooshed from his lungs as he studied the empty dressing room. After a moment, he raced to the adjacent bathroom. One toilet behind a single door, and nobody was home. He spun again and yanked the costume rack to one side, checking behind it. No one was crouching, waiting to jump and give Bryn another heart attack.
There was absolutely no one and nothing in the room except Bryn.
At least, that’s what he told himself.
With shaky resolve, Bryn tugged his wallet out of his bag, shoved it into a pocket, and stomped out of the room. He made it out of the Bel and across the street in record time, and when he pushed his way into the coffee shop, the sweet aroma soothed his nerves. He was just beginning to relax when something struck his shoulder. Bryn jumped.
“Jesus,” Medea said, lowering the hand she’d used to slap-greet Bryn. “Maybe you’ve had enough caffeine for the day, freak.”
“What are you doing here?” Bryn said breathlessly, kicking himself for being such an idiot.
A little girl behind them tugged at her mother’s sleeve. “Mommy, she jumped line.”
“Yes, she did, sweetie,” said the mom with clear disdain. Tourist. Had to be. “She’s rude. We don’t like rude, do we?”
“No.” The little girl put fingers in her mouth, and Medea stuck her tongue out at the pair before turning around to face front.
“Um, same thing I do every day? Getting a refill and stalking you.”
“At least you admit to your obsession,” Bryn said mildly.
“Yeah. I do. And by the way?” Medea nudged Bryn’s arm. “I’m on to you.”
Bryn’s nervous system fritzed. “On to… What do you mean?”
Medea flashed a wicked grin at the customer’s back ahead of them. “I mean, I figured it out. Why you go shooting, why you never hang out, why you’re pissy, all of it.”
Bryn was caught between wanting to strangle Medea or running out the door, and possibly never returning. “Oh yeah? Enlighten me, why don’t you?”
Medea snorted. “You’re fucking somebody, regular like.”
Behind them, the little girl gasped. “Mommy, she said—”
Medea looked over her shoulder. “Can it, babycakes. This is New Amsterdam. Cutting and fucking happen. Get used to it, or get the fuck out.”
The mother and daughter left the line, leaving Bryn alone with Medea and boxed into a tiny room of sheer disbelief. “You think I’m—”
“Yeah, I do,” Medea said.
“The last time we hung out, you were up for a fuck. That’s been months ago. The same months, coinci-fuckin-dentally that you’ve been going to that new range you told me about. ’Cause the old one sucked ancient man junk or whatever.”
“Yeah. Balls. Taint. Wrinkled bits.” Medea slapped her reusable cup on the counter. “Regular. Black. No whip, no cream, no sugar, no glitter. Yeah?”
“Got it,” said the barista.
Medea grabbed a straw and tore the end off with her teeth. “You miss massage for this shooting shit. You go every week. You show up this morning pissed off more than usual and not answering your phone.” Medea gave Bryn a slow smile. “So the fucktoy fucked up and you, my friend, didn’t get any, and here we are.”
“There is no fucktoy,” Bryn said slowly so as not to antagonize the crazy person.
“Mmm-hmm.” Medea accepted her coffee and paid in cash.
“So you’ve upgraded him to boyfriend?” Medea hissed through her teeth. “No wonder you’re in knots over it.”
“There is no boyfriend,” Bryn said, attempting not to shout.
“What can I get you?” the barista asked.
“Iced coffee, skim, no sugar,” Bryn bit out in irritation.
“You’re blushing.” Medea smugly sipped her hot coffee. Through a straw. The woman couldn’t have any taste buds left.
“I am not blushing.”
“Yes, you are. Those two little pink spots come up on your cheeks anytime you’re embarrassed.”
“Or pissed off,” Bryn insisted. He snatched his coffee out of the barista’s hand and tossed money at her.
“Fine.” Medea led them to a high top next to a window. “Who’re you bringing with you to the benefit?”
“No one,” Bryn replied, exasperated.
Bryn stood next to a chair and waved one arm. “How is me coming alone somehow proof I have a boyfriend?”
Medea scoffed. “My friend, if I had a dick, was gay, and looked like you, not only would I never be lonely, I’d never dance again ’cause I’d never get my ass out of bed. Or my prick out of my six boyfriends, for that matter.” She sipped her coffee thoughtfully.
“You’ve always been nuts, but now you’re completely out of your mind, Medea. There’s no one. Nobody. Never. Not happening. Can’t.”
“Yeah? Why not?”
Why was he even having this conversation? “It’s…it’s better this way, okay?”
“Your shrink tell you that?”
Bryn had to sit down before he leaned too hard against the chair and crashed it against the glass.
Medea’s mouth fell open. “Holy fuck, you do
have a shrink, and he did
tell you that, didn’t he?”
“For mercy’s sake, Medea.”
“Your Southern accent totally comes out when you’re aggravated, you know this?”
“Fuck off. Please?”
Medea ignored him. “But why would anybody tell you to be by yourself? That’s, like, completely the opposite of normal, isn’t it? I mean, in a shrink’s perspective?”
Bryn put his coffee down and his head in his hands. Medea had always been nosy and bossy and a gossip from hell, but this was so far out of hand, Bryn couldn’t count the ways. “Medea. There’s nothing here. Find something else to obsess about. What about Mallory? Isn’t she still—”
“Fucking Brigit? Sure. After hours in the rehearsal studio, no less, but that’s boring. This isn’t.”
“How can this not be boring? There’s nobody! He means nothing!”
Bryn knew his mistake the instant the words were out of his mouth. Medea, for her part, showed restraint. She merely reclined in her chair, crossed her arms and legs, and waited. The told you so
was clearly spelled out in her expression.
“Okay,” Bryn said to the table. “Ask.”
“I don’t know. Twenty? Thirty? Not forty.”
“You sound like a fucking driver’s license application.”
Medea widened her eyes at Bryn.
He sighed. “He’s white. Pale. Red hair. Light eyes.”
“No! How the fuck should I know?” Even as he protested, Bryn couldn’t help but remember that he was pretty sure Ellis had pierced nipples. Snug shirts. Cold rooms. Attention could waver. It happened.
“So, you’re trying to fuck him and he’s turning you down?”
“Medea, I know this is hard for you—”
“Not as hard as it is for you, apparently.”
“—but there is nothing going on. He works at the range. I see him there. He’s got a crush. I’m ignoring him.”
“Why, for God’s sake, would you do that?” Medea made a face. “Is he like bad ginge? You know, the ugly kind with the squashed nose and all the fucking freckles?”
“Yes,” Bryn lied.
Medea narrowed her eyes at him. “Nope. He’s not ugly. It’s something else.”
“Okay, I get that you need shit to spread around the Bel for your own twisted mind fuckery, but—”
“Hey!” Medea wagged a finger under Bryn’s nose. “I only tell shit on people I don’t like. Which is, for the record, everybody but
you. This interest right here? This is I’m-the-only-friend-you-clearly-have interest.”
“Bitch, we’d better be. Everyone else thinks you’re an asshole.”
“I am an asshole.”
“I didn’t say they were wrong. I’m just immune to your anti-charms.”
“Why?” Bryn whined.
“Because I’m a bigger asshole than you’d ever hope to be. Now, listen.” She leaned forward. “Seriously, what gives? Everybody figured you had to be in therapy. Always the quiet ones. But why no dating? You an addict?”
“Like an AA for quitters addict?”
“Huh.” Medea sipped thoughtfully. “So none of that houseplant, then dog, then boyfriend shit. So?”
Briefly, Bryn shut his eyes. He pictured Ellis with that grin, and his insides wavered like his atoms were going to split any moment now. He’d seen Medea on the hunt hundreds of times. She was a pit bull with a burglar between her jaws. “If I tell you the truth and buy you lunch, will you shut up and leave me alone?”
“For now, yes.”
“And you’ll somehow keep this to yourself?”
“Again, you’re the only human I tolerate in my presence when not on a stage.”
“Okay. It’s like this.” Bryn licked his lips. He saw the flicker again, a shadow moving among the tables, and he jerked his head away as though he were suddenly fascinated with the people on the other side of the window. “Some bad shit happened when I was a kid, all right? Seventeen,” he answered, and Medea shut her mouth on the question she’d been about to ask. “It was before I came here. After I got here, I was out of the bad shit, but some of it followed me, so I started seeing somebody. He told me I need an outlet. A way to blow off steam, concentrate, focus, whatever, and it couldn’t be ballet for whatever reason. That’s why I shoot. The other thing he told me was that he thinks it’s generally better if I steer clear of relationships. But long before the shrink said anything, and even if he hadn’t thought was a bad move, I wouldn’t be involved with anybody for longer than a night because of the bad shit.” The flicker was weaving among the outside crowd now, so Bryn looked at Medea instead.
“So there’s nothing. Not with Ellis, not with anybody. And won’t be. All right?”
Medea’s poker face was impossible to read. At long last, she nodded, just the once. “Okay. I’m starving, bitch. Where you buying me lunch?”